is self-care a treat?

It seems that everyone is talking about stress these days, just living in our big cities and being employed is stressful.    After the US election in 2016 google searches for self-care rose to a five year high.  I was surprised to see self-care leaving the domain of the helping professions and becoming part of everyday dialogue.  Once a term leaves the realm of a certain profession and becomes part of everyday life it often becomes redefined on the way.   We are seeing that happen with self-care it’s scope has been reduced, and it has become synonymous with having a treat.  From becoming redefined as a treat it has moved to become a commodity.  Self-care is now a term used to tag products on social media, it is now something that you can pay for a little bit of something that you can purchase and that will make you feel better.  

 

The redefinition of self-care as merely a treat has devalued its importance for those of us who work in people focussed professions.  There is an important distinction that we need to emphasis between self-care and a treat.  I like treats, treats are a great way to distinguish between the weekend and the week.  They can help me celebrate, or provide comfort when I am tired, or sad.  Treats are useful things, it is nice to be indulgent every now and again, it can make us feel special and can be a way of showing that we value ourselves.  In fact, treats may make up part of our self-care practice.  But self-care is much bigger and more encompassing than just having a treat now and then.  

The history of self-care is vague. As far as I could discover it came to the fore with the growing awareness of burnout and vicarious traumatisation that grew in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Self-care became acknowledged as an essential part of professional practice for those who were working in people helping professions, as a way of preventing burnout, compassion fatigue and vicarious traumatisation. These professions (including social work, psychology, counselling, clergy) are characterised by intense interactions that make up the core of the work.  People who work in these types of professions need to pay extra care to their physical, emotional, spiritual, and psychological well-being. It is this intentional attention to themselves and their own wellbeing that enables them to do their job well.  It enables them to fully engage with empathy and compassion to their clients.  

It is difficult to define self-care as specific activities because what nurtures one individual may not nurture another.  It is clear that a good base of physical well-being underlies well-being and resilience so that is an important foundation of any self-care plan.  With that physical base in place, self-care should include regular intentional activity that nurtures our spiritual, emotional and psychological health.  It helps build and maintain resilience, in the face of stressful and emotional client interactions.  Self-care is an essential part of professional practice for those in people helping professions. 

We have to attend to self-care to do our jobs well, it is as essential to our work as attending a staff meeting, or keeping up with our professional development and reading in our field.          

I am concerned that as everyone talks about the stress of living and working, it becomes easy to forget that there are occupations that are more stressful than others.  We need to affirm and validate the experience of these occupations as stressful and emphasise that self-care is so much more than cooking a healthy meal or having a chocolate brownie as a treat every now and again. 

Self-care needs more attention and promotion as an intentional and systematic part of our professional development.   

There are other cautions that arise from the development of this culture of self-care as synonymous with treats.  The focus on the individual can lead to too much emphasis being placed on individual responsibility for health and wellbeing.  Self-care doesn’t have to be all about us, it can include others caring for us, even our colleagues and the organisation that we work for.  Research by Maslach and colleagues (2003) have shown that there are many societal and organisational factors that influence the likelihood of burnout.  Although individuals have a role to play in looking after themselves organisations need to also acknowledge the role that they play in supporting the health of their workers.     

For those of you who are in professions that involve a lot of compassionate engagement with other people it is ok to feel like your work is more stressful than others.  Although everyone is experiencing lots of stress at this point of history it is important to acknowledge that your occupation is characterised by stressful interactions.  It is an important and essential part of your professional competency to nurture your own self, so that you are better able to engage empathetically and well with your clients.  Attending external supervision should be an important part of your self-care plan and a supervisor will help you reflect on and prioritise the things that you need to do to enjoy your work and to stay resilient.  

 

keep your creativity flowing

I spent two days last weekend at the Auckland Writers Festival.  It is a highlight of my year, an event I look forward to and I planned ahead with work and parenting commitments so that I could attend.  I enjoyed being around creative people, listening to them describe their creative process, hearing their passion for their work and their topics.  I discovered new books and authors that I haven’t read yet, I met interesting people in the queue for the bathroom and I heard about new ideas.  I left with my brain buzzing, making new connections and throwing interesting thoughts together.  I left inspired and full of new ideas.

 

If you are in a role that requires you to be creative or innovative it is wise to be thinking about how you keep your creativity flowing. You cannot treat your creativity like it is an endless stream that will keep flowing no matter how much you draw from it.  Your creativity is precious and fragile and needs tending and nurturing with care.  You need to balance output with input, to be thinking about how much you are drawing from your creativity and how much you are feeding into your creativity.  If you neglect the tending and the input you may end up feeling like you are wringing the last drops of water from a dry sponge as you try to come up with your next idea.

Part of my well-being practice is to pay careful attention to the effect that different people, different situations and different types of input have on my ability to be creative.  I have discovered that certain people who have certain ways of presenting themselves and their ideas tend to shut down my thinking, they don’t stimulate my thoughts, and they leave me dry.  Other people leave me bursting with thoughts, feeling inspired and creative, and wondering how I am going to implement all the ideas I am having.  Creativity is a complex mix of personality, ways of thinking and the influence of others (including friends and colleagues). So to nurture my creativity I need to pay attention to the mix that is created around me.  Part of how I nurture my creativity is to make sure that my life is balanced with lots of events and people that fire up my creative thoughts.   Attending the Writers Festival is not a luxury for me but an essential practice for nurturing my creativity, and making sure that my ideas are still flowing. 

reflecting on the weekend

I often get to Monday morning totally exhausted by my weekend. I don’t know what happened but somewhere along the way (I think when I became a mum) weekends stopped being refreshing for me.  They are a chore I need to survive and I have become increasingly dissatisfied with them. Long Saturday afternoons spent reading and watching movies are but a distant memory, and so is the feeling of feeling refreshed and replenished for the Monday return to work.  Now weekends are difficult, they go at a frantic 7-year-old pace with lots of bouncing, wriggling, and cartwheels.  Mr Seven’s behaviour is always at its most difficult when two parents are present. Saturday and Sundays start at 6.15am and are packed tight with activity and household organisation tasks until I collapse into bed by 9 pm.  I find myself longing for the peace, quiet and creativity of my work week.

So I decided to use some of my work tools to apply reflective learning to my weekend, to help me think about what is working and what isn't working.  To be able to sit and ponder how I can use my strengths and values at the weekend and in a way that leaves me feeling rested and ready for the week ahead.  For a number of years in my personnel development and coaching work, I have been encouraging others to use critical reflection in their work and to set regular rhythms of reflection and evaluation.  I have also realised that regular systematic reflection has a lot to offer for reducing self-doubt and building self-confidence too.  However last night it suddenly occurred to me that I have never applied the reflective principles that I apply to my work and teach to others to my weekend.  

It is interesting that the wellbeing literature suggests that getting to spend at least 80% of your work week using your strengths, contributes to feeling that you have an excellent quality of life.  We also talk about the impact on wellbeing and workplace engagement of being able to have work that lets us express our values.  Underlying this research about work is the assumption that work is something that we struggle to enjoy and weekends are all fun and enjoyment.  To be honest (and I think this may be true for other part-time working mums) this is the opposite way around for me.

I love my work, and really struggle to enjoy my weekends. 

Household organisation and physical activity do not let me express my strengths or values.  Our time off is just as important, if not more so than our time at work, but sometimes we can be reluctant to apply work principles to our time off.  I guess it makes us feel like we are working instead of relaxing and can sap our spontaneity.  If we are going to use work tools to help our time off we need to avoid using them to make rules and only use them if they do have positive results

I decided to bring together critical reflection, strengths and values to help me assess my weekends as a first step in finding a way forward to expressing more of my strengths and values. It is also an opportunity to assess the balance between each family member in the opportunities they get over the weekend.  To do this I made a simple worksheet which you can see here.  

I would love to hear your ideas of how you use your strengths to make weekends more enjoyable.

 

taking life micro-pauses

When did you last stop?  No I mean really stop.  Stop to do nothing.  I don’t mean reading this blog on your phone while you wait for your coffee to be made, I mean actually stop.  Life has been pretty busy lately and I was at the supermarket the other day waiting in the checkout queue.  As I realised I was going to have to wait for 2 people in front of me instead of feeling impatient like normal I was actually pleased, it felt like a treat.  You see for that moment all that was required of me was to wait, no-one was requiring anything from me (I do my shopping without my son) all I had to do was stand there.   

Waiting in the grocery queue was freeing and energising. 

This world that we live in cajoles us to keep going, to keep up, to keep thinking, to never quite switch off.  We live in an information-rich age, which ironically increases our expectation to know everything all the time.  Our devices with their dings, notifications, time to destinations, task lists and reminders, keep us aware of time, aware of all that we have to do, and the time that we have to do it in.  Usually when I have to wait I am caught up in this trap, I might be checking on blogs I follow, checking my own blog stats, checking to see if anyone has messaged me, writing a list of things I have to do next, or worrying that I won’t have time to do the next things I am trying to fitinto my stuffed schedule.      

Our brains, just like other parts of our body need care, maintenance and compassion to stay in good condition.  Part of how we care for our brains is to give them some down time. Some time when we stop putting information in and relax, letting our brain roam free.  The downtime allows our brain to process all that we have put in,  may assist it in storing memories effectively and being able to pay attention again when we need to. Downtime also helps us to create innovative solutions to those things we may be stuck on and helps our creativity.  Our ability to think and concentrate is also enhanced by making sure we take regular down times throughout the day.  

Life micro-pauses are those opportunities that we have to take breaks during the day, those little moments in which we can detach from the demands placed on us, and relax our bodies and brains.  The first step is to notice all these opportunities, and then to actually be intentional about using them to stop, as it is easy to fill them up with the noise of our connected lives.  Think about how you can use the small pauses that occur in your day to day life as downtime for your brain.  These can be those moments when you are waiting for the kettle to boil, or the coffee machine to heat up, waiting in the supermarket line, waiting for the lights to change, or in the queue at the post office.   These are all times when nothing is required of you, all you have to do in that moment is to wait, to take a moment to rest your brain and rest your body, and simply be.  You might like to be aware of your body or be aware of your breath, and you will need to be intentional about not filling these moments with your phone, magazines, music, the news of other inputs that you have on hand.  Take these moments as opportunities to refresh and re-energise.  

psychological safety

"I don't feel like I can be myself", or "the young people don't feel safe".  It is something I hear a lot, especially in the evangelical environments that I used to be involved in. There seems to be something about Christian (evangelical) environments that make it very difficult to create a psychologically safe environment.   I mentioned psychological safety briefly on my blog last weekbut it is such an important concept for churches and organisations to discuss I would like to highlight it again.  

A psychologically safe environment is one where people feel free to be themselves, where they don't have to protect themselves by disengaging or holding back, where they don't fear negative consequences if they say what they think, make mistakes, ask questions express doubtor challenge the status quo.  In contrast to vulnerability which is largely an individual’s ability to share on a personal level, psychological safety deals with the actions, attitudes and beliefs on a group level.  For those of us in christian environments the biggest negative consequence of speaking our minds is the threat to our sense of belonging to the Christian community.  There is still an
emphasis on ‘in’ and ‘out’ and the feeling of belonging is very (perhaps spiritually) important to members.  Members may be reluctant to express themselves as the consequence is that they are labelled as non-christian or non-biblical, and their sense of belonging to the community is questioned.  

Psychological safety is necessary to encourage innovation and learning.  If we want to grow the individuals in our churches and our churches ability to keep up with societal changes we need to create psychological safety.  Leaders have a role to play in creating a psychologically safe congregation, but the research shows that the members have just as an important part in creating safety.  Leaders can help by modelling how to value and appreciate diverse opinions, by acknowledging the diversity of opinions within Christianity and within their denominations.  They can admit their own mistakes and doubts, and importantly they can model that the status quo can be challenged, and ask for input and feedback.  Members then need to be taught how to value and respect other's opinions, and how to be accepting of others doubts and questions.   As an individual it can be difficult to create a psychologically safe environment,  but it is possible to gradually make some small changes.  The first step is to take some small risks in sharing your own thoughts and ideas, this may encourage others to share as well.  Here are some questions to get you and your leadership thinking about psychological safety.  


Is my church a psychologically safe environment for me? For others?
Do the people in my church seem different in contrast to when I speak to individuals?
3) What are the ways in which we re-in force belonging over not-belonging and hold it as a threat for those who don't conform?
4) Does the leadership admit their fallibility, not just in their personal or spiritual life but acknowledging their blind spots and asking for input?  
5) How do I express appreciation for others opinions?
6) What are the small risks I could take this week to express myself fully?