None Of Us Are Superheroes
We're trained as Child and Youth Workers to never use the word "Superheroes" when referring to ourselves or others in the field.
We're taught to help others help themselves, building on the skills and strengths they already have.
We are not SuperMan or Batman using our incredible power to hold a collapsing building, or to defuse a bomb at just the right moment.
Child and Youth Care Workers are simply humans who are willing to walk into a falling building, look at the person stuck in there and go "Wow, this really sucks doesn't it? Do you want some help to get out of here?".
We're people who will look at the ticking time bomb next to someone and say "I have this manual here about what might work, want to read it together?"
In essence, we always go into the chaos, the mess, the struggle, the fear, the injustice, the problems to support our clients and be with them where they need. We look at hard times from afar and have to think to ourselves "I really need a closer look at where those people are" so that we can walk into the fire and avalanche with our arms and minds open.
Meeting people where they're at in life, and focusing on what their goals, strengths, abilities, expectations, and interests are is a huge part of being a helping professional. The invisible lining with this element of practice is the personal dynamic that comes along with it.
Changing your lens to be completely focused on benefiting another human is one of the most important things a worker can do, one of the most rewarding, and possibly one of the most dangerous.
There's a reason burnout rates continue to skyrocket in the helping professions.
It's similar to when office workers have to learn about how to sit and type properly while making sure not to sit too long, otherwise they face the physical consequences. Those are some of the hazards to working in that environment. Child and Youth Workers desperately need a WHMIS equivalent to not losing ourselves in the realm of living for others. We constantly face the hazard of forgetting to bring ourselves back to the front row at the end of the work day.
It's because we work within a relationship dynamic with clients. Then, following a long day of working within relationships, we go on to have more and more relationships with the people in our personal lives. The invisible hazard here is how do we distinguish and stop the behavior of putting another person first? How do we stop trying to be helpful and attentive and useful and professional and subconsciously using the right words and offering the right solutions and the right display of affection?
Checking Myself While Wrecking Myself
I myself encountered this question for the last couple of years. In my personal relationships I have too often found myself planning what to say to my partner to optimize conversations, even if these will turn out to be insignificant in the long run. For example; if I get frustrated that he has left his clothes all over the house. First, I subconsciously check my bias and remind myself they aren't "all over" just a pair of pants here and a shirt over there.
Unintentionally I then go to where he's at, before I even take a chance to dwell with where I was. Accidentally I imagine his perspective for him, that he works long hours, and is tired, and probably has developed this habit over years of not living with me, so it's understandable.
Before I even mention the forgotten pants the cats now sleep on; I plan the best way to bring it up without sounding too frustrated, or like I'm assuming, or not accepting. In the nicest, kindest way possible I slightly bring up that it's...sometimes, not always of course...annoying...well, not annoying, just not ideal, to pick up all the clothes around the house when I want to do laundry.
See how afraid or frail or insecure that sounds? And I'm fortunate enough to not even be afraid of my partner, or my actions, or not feel my self-worth. In lots of reflection I've realized that my brain is so focused on being therapeutic and caring of another's feelings. This is something I strive for and like about myself at work; the clients I serve are vulnerable, sensitive, and complex. Something as small as tossed around clothing could be a discussion that makes or breaks our professional relationship.
When I am at work this ability is wonderful and helps me be a safe place for my clients, approach them with an open mind, and respond to their needs based on their emotions, not mine. At home though, this selfless behavior started to lead to an empty feeling like I was putting so many people first but I wasn't being first for anyone. In the end who can I really blame, for putting myself on the back burner, but me for so intentionally putting everyone above me.
But how do I turn it off? Especially when it's such an important part of myself that I half don't want to, and half don't realize I'm even doing it.
For me, it's about realizing how many other parts of myself can be normal, important and amazing; including parts of me that seem the opposite on the surface.
Being angry or disappointed is a normal, important and amazing part of myself. It shows I have a vision of what I want and need and the ability to tell the difference of what makes me happy and doesn't; it stops me from living a life of indifference.
Sharing with someone that the way they act or speak towards me makes me feel "meh" may be subjective, unclear, and unprofessional... and that part of me isn't meant to be shut in a closet all the time, it's normal, important and amazing. It helps me to build and keep personal and intimate connections together with another person, not alone and within myself.
Often the word "Self-Care" is everywhere in the Child and Youth Care field. "When in doubt, self-care" basically. So when in doubt about this personal dynamic that was stemming from my work, I figured that must be the answer. Self-Care is an umbrella subject and within strategies range from a quick bubble bath to extensive therapy for counselors. Here are some self-care strategies that worked for me to move forward from this imbalance in my work/personal life.
Affirmations and Self Reminders
Challenging the professional voice inside my head was difficult at first. I was so used to challenging the personal voice in my head while I was at work. Turning myself into a professional thinker before a workday came easily to me, but back to a regular human after work? Much harder.
I found two things that made this effort easier.
Firstly, I found a few words to describe "Personal Me" to use consistently, so that they sounded comfortable in my mouth. You'll notice I use the words "Normal", "Important" and "Amazing" in this blog post a lot already, and there is 100% a reason for that.
Finding a few words that resonated with how I wanted to view my bias, emotions, thoughts, and beliefs outside of work helped me in the moments I struggled with most.
Secondly, I turned to outside resources to help me find affirmations to use, since it was difficult for me to do on my own. The Rewired Life by Erica Spiegelman is a useful resource for navigating self-care as a whole. Whether you're a helping professional or just someone who wants to explore wellness further, The Rewired Life examines different areas of health, self-care, and well-being in a pragmatic, easy to read style. An extra bonus that I discovered was the lists of affirmations to practice or try at the end of each chapter. If putting yourself first is as hard for you as it was for me, this book may be helpful for you.
Fake it 'till I Make It
Since I wanted to stop leaving myself behind, I intentionally had to practice moving myself forward in my actions and words. In the beginning, this was very difficult, and very uncomfortable.
First it took building an awareness and reflecting on moments in my life. After an interaction with friends or family, I would ask myself "How do I feel about this?" or "Did I put myself first in that moment?" After a lot of practice in reflection (it's own self-care strategy that is uncomfortable, intentional, and important) I was able to see some of the moments in my day where I left myself behind.
Next, I had to force myself to move forward in these moments. In moments where I would normally agree to save a negative feeling for another, or practiced expressing myself in front of the mirror to make sure it didn't sound 'mean'; I had to recognize it, stop myself, and do the opposite. At first, this method brought up emotions of fear, worry, and doubt. I immediately wanted to take back everything I said, rephrase it to sound better, apologize for being reckless with my actions.
With time, this practice became easier, and worth each uncomfortable moment I endured. Eventually speaking my mind with less censoring, less selflessness, and less profession felt more natural.
Honesty and Communication
In the journey of meeting my clients where they were at, while not leaving myself behind, I experienced a lot of conflicting emotions. Practicing new ways of living my personal life, and accepting all of who I am as a person was important work to be doing, but not easy. I was basically telling myself I'm fine the way I am, while actively changing how I speak and act outside of work. At times, it felt like I was trying to surgically separate two halves of myself and sew them together in a new way.
Helping professionals are accustomed to being the supporters, but typically forget they need just as much as support as well. I fell into this category.
I reached a point in this journey where I chose to move from reflecting on what I wanted to work on, and where I felt comfortable with myself to sharing it with those close to me. Again, not easy. Which is why I knew I needed it most.
Sometimes I think that battling something alone means it will be easier, but once I let the people I love and trust in, I saw it was easier when I wasn't alone. When my journey of catching up to myself felt too hard, I could fall back on my friends and family. They gave me advice, hugs, support, and love.
They showed me not only deserve to be put first, but that others are capable, willing, and desiring to put my needs and emotions first too.
Go Where They're At. Don't Leave Yourself Behind.
Being a Child and Youth Worker or Helping Professional is such important, fulfilling, and passionate work. What can be most forgotten is that we are our tools. We can't forget to show up for ourselves, or we risk not being able to show up to work in a healthy way anymore. Our personal lives are too important to let the sneaky villain known as burnout to creep into our lives. Whether you have experience this in similar ways to mine, or in your own I hope you find the courage and desire to show up for yourself no matter how hard it may seem at first.