(This post is part of my ongoing series ABCs of Hospital Chaplaincy.)
You’ve probably heard the saying that doctors make the worst patients. I’m here to testify that in many cases, caregivers are the very worst at taking care of ourselves. It took me years as a chaplain to learn how important it was to care for myself so that I could care for other people. And still sometimes I let it slide. Prioritizing self-care is hard for a lot of us. We live in a society that encourages and praises workaholism, so when we speak up for own need for days off from work, for example, we risk falling behind or being seen as less dedicated than our peers who happily take on extra hours.
But in any profession, and especially in high-stress professions such as chaplaincy, working too much and neglecting our own needs inevitably leads to burnout. No one can keep giving and giving and giving when their resources are depleted. Self-care looks a little different for each of us, but there are some things we all need. Here are a few of my suggestions to care for yourself.
Make sure your days off are days OFF. Working from home does not count as a day off. Constantly checking and responding to office emails on your vacation is good way to make your vacation ineffective. Just going in for a couple hours to finish up a project on your weekend can become a draining habit. As my pastor reminded us in yesterday’s sermon, God instituted sabbath not just as a time for us to replenish ourselves for more work, but as a time of celebration. We remember and celebrate that we are loved for who we are, not just what we do. We remember and celebrate that, while our work is important, the world will not come to a screeching halt if we take a break. We all need time to focus on those truths.
Learn to recognize what nourishes your soul. When the weather permits, I love to take my dog and go for a walk on the beach or along the marsh. I go slowly, letting Hurley sniff everything along the way. I pray a little, and I just enjoy the quiet. Maybe you can’t stand walking slowly or you hate dogs; maybe running to beat your personal record leaves you feeling refreshed. Only you can know how best to take care of yourself. Pay attention to those times when you feel relaxed, content, invigorated, joyful. Whatever you’re doing at those times, find ways to do it more often. Losing yourself in a good book? Cooking dinner for your partner? Playing with your kids? Doing yoga? Getting coffee with your best friend? Crocheting or knitting or sewing? Find what is helpful for you and make time to do it regularly. It’s as important as anything else on your calendar, I promise.
Learn to recognize your own warning signs for burnout. Most of us who have been in the workforce for a few years have pushed ourselves too hard at least once. If we’re lucky, we can see that we’re headed for danger before we end up causing real harm to our physical and mental health. What are your red flags? For me, it’s numbness. I have learned (the hard way) that if I find myself sitting with patients and families facing tragedy and don’t feel some pangs of compassion, then I am very close to burnout. Recognizing that I have nothing left to give tells me that I have to go refill my own tank immediately. That means that as soon as I can, I will take some time alone in the chapel to sit quietly with God. And the next day if possible, I will request a day off. When I look back, I can usually see that I have not gotten enough rest in the past few weeks, that I have not taken any time off in much too long, that I haven’t made a point of doing the things that feed my soul (see above). For other caregivers I know, their warning signs can be an unusually short temper, a steep increase or decrease in appetite, lack of ability to focus, insomnia, and more. Figure out what yours are, and be on the lookout for them.
Find someone who listens well, and talk to them regularly. I don’t think I would have survived my first few years of chaplaincy without a good counselor. When I first started going to counseling, I expected to get advice on how to improve myself. But mostly, counselors listen, and I found that I needed that more than advice. I would highly recommend finding a counselor, a pastor, a trusted friend or colleague, someone you know you can say anything to without fear of judgment. Particularly if you’re in a caregiving profession, you will have some heavy stuff you need to unload, because we always take on part of the burdens of those we care for. Don’t try to carry all of that alone. None of us can and none of us should try. From the very beginning, God said it wasn’t good for any one of us to be alone. Remember that you’re not alone. Find your “tribe” and let them take care of you as much as you take care of them and others.
Don’t neglect your body. It’s easy to get so busy with work and family that we don’t take good care of our physical health. Most of us don’t get enough sleep or exercise. And a lot of us find ourselves eating whatever we can grab from the drive-thru while we’re going from point A to point B. This is one I still struggle with, a lot. Eating healthy does take more time and forethought, at least for me. But the way I feel when I’m filling my stomach with fruits and vegetables, lean proteins and whole grains is so much better than when I’m quickly downing a bag of chips and a soda that it is worth the effort. I have to remind myself of that constantly. As an adult, I am the person God has placed in charge of my care. It’s easy for me to make healthy choices for my dog or my soon-to-be-stepsons, because I own the responsibility of caring for them. I would never give my dog a steady diet of snack foods, or let the boys sit on the couch all day or stay up way past their bedtimes. And I help make sure that all of them have regular medical check-ups. So why do I hesitate to do likewise for myself? If this is an issue for you too, then try treating yourself like you would your children or your pets. Feed yourself nutritious foods. Take yourself for walks (or whatever form of exercise works best for you). Put yourself to bed in time to get 8 hours of sleep (or more if you need it). Get yourself checked out by a doctor at least once a year.
When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, he said to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves. We sin in pretending that caring for ourselves is optional. Loving and taking care of ourselves is not selfish; it is sacred.