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Sunday, February 10, 2019

Realistic Self-Care: What's Draining Your Battery?

by Catharine Hannay

When I started my first teaching job, a veteran professor told me:

“Anyone can be a good teacher by killing yourself [with work]. The secret is to be a good teacher without killing yourself.”

I've heard similar remarks from nurses, social workers, and counselors. There is far too much to do on any given day, and it's only getting worse as 24/7 connectivity adds to the already-impossible demands on those of us committed to helping others.

As my husband said after a particularly grueling day of pro bono work:

“Everybody loves that Margaret Mead quote about a small group of thoughtful and committed citizens changing the world. What nobody ever seems to mention is how exhausting it can be.”

My first choice would be to wave my magic wand and make everything easier for you: Shazam! Abacadabra! Your salary has increased, your workload has decreased, and you feel energized and content at the end of every day, knowing that all of your efforts are fully appreciated and you have a pleasant evening ahead of you to spend relaxing in whatever way you choose.

Oh, well. Since that's not possible, I'd like to at least help you figure out what specifically is draining your energy. There are a lot of possible factors, and they require different types of solutions.

Is Your Work Physically, Mentally, and/or Emotionally Draining?

Is your body feeling tired?
• Are you on your feet all day?
• Do you have to haul around heavy bags from one end of campus to the other?
• Are you a caregiver who regularly needs to lift someone else's body weight (perhaps a small child, or someone with a serious illness or mobility impairment)?

In any of these cases, you're likely overstraining certain muscles and would probably benefit from some gentle whole-body movement and stretching.

However, if you spend most of your day sitting, especially if you're hunched over a desk or computer, you could be sluggish because you're not getting enough exercise. In that case, you'd likely benefit from taking a brisk walk or doing a vigorous workout.

Is your mind feeling sluggish?

There are also quite different reasons why you might be feeling mentally drained. Perhaps your job involves a lot of concentration or high-level thinking, so you'd benefit from a bit of light reading or watching an episode of your favorite sitcom.

On the other hand, you could be bored due to lack of mental stimulation. Let's face it, a lot of jobs in the helping professions involve repeating the same information over and over and over again.

For example,
• teaching beginning-level students;
• explaining the same basic medical procedures to every single patient all day; or
• sitting at the front desk handling the same types of phone calls or paperwork.

If you're in that situation, you might want to take a break from light reading and sitcoms. You might actually find it more enjoyable to read a challenging book in your field or on a topic you've always wanted to study.

Are you emotionally spent?

Even if you're in a fairly pleasant work environment, maintaining a professional persona can be draining. Especially if you're an introvert in an extraverted job, you'll probably feel a lot better if you can get just some solitude.

It's also quite likely that you're dealing with a lot of stress, and/or suffering from compassion fatigue. Note the word 'fatigue.' We don't always realize how tiring it can be not just to care for, but to care about those who are suffering.

A bereavement counselor told me about a day he spent at a school where one of the students had committed suicide. He knew that he really need to rest afterwards, but he had to go directly from the school to an evening support group for adults.

Here's what he did: he arrived fifteen minutes early and took a nap in his car. After that, he felt refreshed enough to give his full attention to the group of grieving adults, and the session went very well.

That specific solution might not work for you. (A car nap would leave me feeling rumpled and groggy.) But we can all come up with creative ways to sneak quick breaks into our schedules so we can be fully present for those who need us.

Do You Have Trouble Setting Boundaries?

I've talked with a lot of highly effective counselors, teachers, and other helpers. They have very different interests and areas of expertise, but they all have one thing in common: excellent boundaries.

Developing healthy emotional boundaries doesn't mean you don't care about your students or clients. It means you don't get overly enmeshed. You have a good sense of where you end and the other person begins.

I asked the bereavement counselor,

"How can you handle seeing grieving clients all day without getting overwhelmed?

He explained,

"I remind myself that it's not my grief. It belongs to my clients. I'm here to listen and support them, not take their grief away from them and bring it home with me."

In addition to our own emotional boundaries, we also have to be careful in not letting our students or clients ignore reasonable boundaries or limits we've set for them.

In a guest post for the Center for Adolescent Studies blog, I described a typical scenario:

“No, you may not turn in your homework late. Well, just this once… No, really, I mean it. I won’t accept any more late homework. Oh, all right, but this is the last time… You’re turning your homework in late again? That’s really not acceptable. No. No. No. OK. But don’t do it again.” 
“Three Useful Counseling Skills for Teachers”

That's the type of pattern I used to fall into quite regularly, and I found it frustrating and exhausting.

Of course I'm not advocating an overly-harsh approach:

“No, you may not turn in your homework a day late even though you were in the hospital having emergency surgery!”

I'm just pointing out that some students or clients will inevitably test our boundaries, and if we give in too easily over reasonable policies we're just setting ourselves up for further frustration.

What Do You ‘Have to Do’ That You Don’t Really Have to Do?

Have you ever heard, or said, something like this?

“My daughter moved into an apartment that doesn't accept pets, so I have to take care of her dog.”


“My son’s starring in the school play, so I have to make all the costumes.”


“I have to cook a multi-course holiday dinner for my entire extended family all by myself yet again this year.”

Those are all wonderful ways to support your loved ones, and I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone from doing them if you truly feel moved to do so. My issue is with ‘have to,’ as if there’s no choice in the matter.

Many of us also take on more of a burden at work than absolutely necessary. We often really don't have any control over our schedules, but sometimes we take on more than we can handle or more than is actually required.

As Alexandra Franzen says, "There's Always a Simpler Way," which she realized after spending a week lugging around yoga mats for the participants on a retreat she was hosting.

"My guests were staying at a hotel with a cheery, bright, wood-floored studio that we could use for our twice-daily yoga classes, [but] we were not allowed to store the mats inside the studio."

So she carried a dozen yoga mats from her apartment to her car. Then from her car to the studio. Then back into her car and back out again for the second yoga class of the day. Then back into the car yet again, so she could carry the mats back into her apartment, so she could repeat the same process every single day of the retreat.

"Have you ever tried to stuff twelve yoga mats into the backseat of a Volkswagen beetle?... It was tedious. It was physically exhausting... But I kept reminding myself, 'This is what I have to do.'"

It didn't occur to her until after the retreat was over that she "could have just given one yoga mat to each guest and they could have kept their mats inside their hotel rooms during the day."

As Ms. Franzen points out, the details are different for each of us, but we've all had our own version of the 'yoga mat situation.' When we feel overwhelmed, it can be useful to ask ourselves:

"Could there be a simpler way? A better way? A kinder and gentler way? A more efficient way? There probably is. Maybe you’ve just been too hustle-bustle-crazy-busy-frenzied to see it clearly."

Conclusion: Of Course You Could Always Do More. But Can You?

This isn’t about shirking our responsibilities. It’s about:

1) figuring out what aspects of our work and schedules we have control over; and

2) making choices about how to most effectively spend our time and energy.

In his book Clergy Burnout, Rev. Fred Lehr describes a common phenomenon among helpers:

“I pushed and pushed to be the perfect pastor... At no time could I ever declare, ‘This is enough.’ I had no concept of ‘enough.’ Every year had to be better than the year before.”

The problem is that pushing ourselves beyond reasonable limits can hurt us, our families, and even those we serve.

As Rev. Lehr puts it,

“Work 24/7—that’s the ticket to those pats on the back. But it’s also the fast track to personal and congregational destruction.”

The bereavement counselor I mentioned told me he worries about his colleagues who never take comp (compensatory) days. They're entitled to a weekday off in exchange for working on the weekend, and their boss encourages them to do this.

By not taking any time away from their work, they think they're being extra dutiful. Unfortunately, they end up turning into the least effective counselors. After a few years, they get burned out and cynical. This starts to effect their coworkers, and eventually their clients.

Taking comp days? Napping in the car? Lest you think this bereavement counselor is a slacker, let me assure you that he's very good at his job. I didn't meet him in a professional context; I went to see him after my mother died of brain cancer.

Which would you prefer:

• Seeing a counselor with a good sense of his own needs and limits?


• Seeing someone who yawned during an appointment and rolled her eyes when she thought you weren't looking? (I'm not exaggerating. That actually happened to me at a different counseling center.)

To put this as simply as possible:

Thoughtful and committed citizens, take a nap!

Then, as soon as you feel refreshed, get back out there and keep on changing the world.

battery image by acunha 1973 at Pixabay

About the Author

Catharine Hannay is the founder of and the author of Being You: A Girl’s Guide to Mindfulness, a workbook for teen girls on mindfulness, compassion, and self-acceptance. (Sales of the book help me continue to run with no sponsorship or advertising.)