My Self-Care Hurts: What to Do When Self-Care Becomes Another Source of Stress
By Kelly Webster, LMSW
When you think about self-care, what comes to mind? Yoga, the gym, a day at the spa? For so many social workers, self-care becomes another nagging thing on the to-do list that we don’t have time or money for. That’s because so many of us are doing it wrong. Self-care shouldn’t be a source of stress. Instead, self-care should be compassionate, affordable, realistic, and effective.
The world of work is ever evolving. In recent times, hours have become longer, and more and more people are maintaining multiple streams of income. For social workers, already vulnerable to burnout, this has meant higher caseloads, little to no time off, and increased stress. Some studies have concluded that up to 75% of social workers may experience burnout over the lifetime of their careers (Siebert, 2006). Self-care has never been so necessary, yet it is increasingly difficult to integrate into our lives in a meaningful and sustainable way.
Burnout Can Be Hard to Recognize
People often overlook signs of burnout because they expect it to lead to a crash or a clear moment of breakdown. This is not always the case. In fact, many of us function in a state of depletion and may not recognize that we are experiencing burnout. Burnout can be a slow process which can result in decreased satisfaction and quality of life over time. Burnout can be defined as “a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress” (Smith, Segal, Robinson, & Segal, 2019). Burnout is also highly stigmatized and often misunderstood. Many people avoid acknowledging signs of burnout due to fear that it will mean that they are no longer able to be productive.
I entered the field with the misconception that burnout would result from becoming emotionally overwhelmed by the stories and experiences of my clients. This never happened to me. I was shocked when I discovered that my convenient pattern of getting sick only on weekends and holidays was actually a sign that something might be wrong. It became a running joke in my house. Whenever my son showed any signs of a cold coming on, I would always tell him, “just hold out until the weekend” or “winter break is coming; you can be as sick as you want the whole time, just wait a few more days.”
Burnout can also be confusing because it can present as beneficial. People often associate burnout as a decline in work performance, but it may manifest as maintaining or even increasing productivity. This, however, is often coupled with declining in other areas of life. This can often be hard to recognize because we do not get performance reviews or evaluations outside of work. As work becomes the place where we say yes, home or our relationships with ourselves may become the place where we say no.
Self-Care Is Not a New Year’s Resolution
People often take the New Year’s resolution approach to self-care. It becomes entangled with areas of life or aspects of ourselves that we are looking to correct or a list of things that we are not doing. Basing a caring practice around dissatisfaction sets us up for disappointment. Like New Year’s resolutions, we are left feeling frustrated with ourselves for not following through. This is unsustainable because self-care isn’t a means to correct perceived flaws, a far-off event in the future, something that requires extensive effort, logistics, or preparation or a distraction from what we are experiencing.
Then What Is It?
Self-care is a practice rooted in knowing that we are valued and deserving individuals. We engage in this knowing through deliberate and purposeful acts that support, preserve, and/or protect our physical, spiritual, and emotional well-being. It is an evolving relationship with ourselves based on a foundation of compassion, understanding, patience, and self-love. Self-C.A.R.E. should be compassionate, affordable, realistic, and effective:
• Compassionate: In planning our self-care practices, we should respond to ourselves with the same compassion that we provide others. Compassion goes a step beyond empathy. By definition, empathy is an ability to understand the pain of others. Compassion is an understanding of the pain of others coupled with the desire to alleviate that pain. According to Buddha, “Compassion is that which makes the heart of the good move at the pain of others. It crushes and destroys the pain of others; thus, it is called compassion. It is called compassion because it shelters and embraces the distressed.”
• Affordable: People often struggle with sustaining self-care because of the cost. Self-care practices should be affordable. They should reasonably and sustainably work within our budget without eliciting financial lack, feelings of guilt, or increased financial worry.
• Realistic: You also want to make sure that your self-care practices can be integrated into your life as needed on a consistent basis. In order for your self-C.A.R.E. practices to be sustainable, they need to be easily and consistently be put into action. Stress, fatigue, exhaustion—all of these things do not wait. So your C.A.R.E. shouldn’t wait either.
• Effective: Lastly, self-care needs to be effective. It should consistently lead to a deep and genuine feeling that we are restored, cared for, and valued. You want to ensure that your self-care practices are individually and presently aligned with your needs. As we often say to our clients, we want to treat the underlying illness, not just the symptoms. A vacation at the end of the year is amazing, but I am here today! What can I do within this moment, throughout this day or week?
The Right Solution for the Right Problem
Remember as kids playing the game of putting the right shape into the right slot? Self-care works like this as well. A colleague recently shared her growing frustration that she wasn’t getting to the gym after work; she was binge eating at night and subsequently gaining weight and feeling more and more down on herself. Rather than tackling her schedule, the first step was helping her to reconnect with compassion towards herself. She was working very hard with long days and frequent crises. She was genuinely tired. Physically, the energy just wasn’t there to go to the gym. She was often skipping meals throughout the day, partly due to her schedule, but also likely due to her body’s response to stress. This is a common experience for many of us, and one that we often take for granted. Pushing through the day without refueling led to what felt like overdoing it once she got home. She was disappointed in herself for what she felt were unhealthy behaviors and not being able to follow through on changes. Finding time to get to the gym wasn’t the real struggle here. What truly helped my colleague was revising her schedule to improve balance, recommitting to supervision, having regular meals throughout the day, and taking time to debrief or process with colleagues when stressed. This also led to a shift in her attitude toward the gym. Rather than going to the gym because she was frustrated with her weight, she was able to go as an act of caring for herself.
It Might Mean Speeding Up, Not Slowing Down
Self-care is almost always associated with leisure. It is based on the assumption that we are experiencing stress or burnout because we are doing too much. However, many of us experience stress because we feel that we are not doing enough—or at least, not doing enough of the right thing. Burnout can also result from a loss of professional motivation, self-esteem, feeling adequacy, social and peer support, and positive outlook on life (Campagne, 2012). Caring for ourselves doesn’t have to mean slowing down. For many people, their career is an area of prolonged professional dissatisfaction. Have you been feeling that you are underutilizing your skills or that you were not challenged enough? In this case, self-C.A.R.E. might mean doing more. The key is to tap into an individualized set of practices that truly speak to your underlying needs.
Take a moment and think back to a really stressful day at work. At the end of that day, what did you need? Was it sleep? Or perhaps a long conversation with your best friend? This question should be at the root of our self-C.A.R.E. practices. So many of us get it wrong because we are doing what we think we are supposed to do, rather than what we need. We all feel replenished in different ways. Our self-C.A.R.E. practices should be individualized to who we are and how we recharge.
— Kelly Webster, LMSW, is Brooklyn-based therapist, lecturer, and writer specializing in self-esteem building, professional growth, and helping others to get unstuck. She has conducted her Self-C.A.R.E workshop as part of the continuing education department at Hunter College, Silberman School of Social Work.
Campagne, D. M. (2012). When therapists run out of steam: Professional boredom or burnout? Revista de Psicopatología Y Psicología Clínica, 17(1), 75-85.
Siebert, D. C. (2006). Personal and occupational factors in burnout among practicing social workers. Journal of Social Service Research, 32(2), 25-44.
Smith, M., Segal, J., Robinson, L., & Segal, R. (2019, June). Burnout prevention and treatment: Techniques for dealing with overwhelming stress. Retrieved from https://www.helpguide.org/articles/stress/burnout-prevention-and-recovery.htm.