People of caring professions are especially vulnerable to self-neglect. Their work requires a constant focus on the needs of others, on encouraging, challenging, consoling and cajoling of others. Their gaze is always directed outward, preoccupied with measuring of others’ well-being and progress. It is a cognitive and relational service, an act of giving. Looking inward is difficult for them. Assessing their own well-being, acknowledging stress, pain, and stating their own needs – all of these feel like an extra burden. Yet they need to do that.
It is because our own self is the most important, the most expensive instrument with which we can do encouraging, challenging, consoling and cajoling. For a teacher or a support staff, working while damaging one’s own self is like trying to play a beautiful and complicated music on a violin that is out of tune or missing a string. You can have all the skills and tall he right intentions in the world, but your music is not going to come out right. In this trade, we are our own tools. And any craftsperson takes care of her or his tools. It is totally fine to lay awake at night, mentally planning, or talking, or working through a problem – if it happens 2-3 times a year. If it happens a couple of times a week, this is a problem. Your tool is need of some serious maintenance. It will require some freeing of time, some creation of space for yourself. However, just accept the cost. There is no deferred maintenance of the self.
Our selves are very unique, which makes them so valuable as instruments. But the uniqueness also makes it hard to provide a universal recipe for self-care. However, all of the known ways require some mitigation of stresses. It could be in reducing the source of the stress, or learning to reduce the intensity of experiencing them. I will give just a few OK’s as examples; but the point is to continue.
- It is OK to tell your students: You know, I realized I planned too much work for myself in this semester. I am going to cancel this required assignment, because I cannot do a good job grading it. Feel free to do it on your own, just for practice, and ask your classmate for a feedback. I will give you an extra credit if you do that.
- It is OK to tune out of the political news out there. The situation is going to resolve itself without your great emotional investment. Consider how much you can actually do (other than vote), and how much this stuff is getting you upset. Watch a romantic flick instead of CNN. Sorry, CNN; perhaps another year.
- It is OK to tell your boss, your colleagues, or an organization you are volunteering for: Sorry, can we postpone this project to the next year? I cannot deal with it right now. We do not have to be super-productive right this year. Think of all years before and after.
- It is OK, no, scratch that, you need to seek help. We have professional help available; a unique program called the Employee Assistance Program. But we also have colleagues, administrators, friends, most of whom will hear you out, empathize, give support and advice. We all know that by helping you we are also helping those you care for. Any support given to an educator multiplies down the chain of care.