My first job as a budding therapist, fresh out of grad school, was at a psychiatric hospital. Many memories from that time have stayed with me, but it was a comment I heard a fellow therapist make that altered my understanding of the importance of emotional self-care for those whose life’s work is serving others.
I was in my office, wrapping up after a long day, when my coworker walked in, looking exhausted. He slumped into his chair, and said, “I wish there was a hospital for us.” He then shared his burnout and frustration at not having enough resources to help him deal with his own issues. It was the first time I’d heard a professional be so candid about their emotional needs. This began over a decade of conversations with people whose chosen profession is to help people change their lives for the better. From teachers to midwives, humanitarian aid workers to healthcare providers, therapists, counselors, and clergy of all types … to me, they’re all healers, and they all experience burnout.
If turbulence arises during an airplane flight, we find reassurance in the calm and authoritative manner of the flight attendant, right? In much the same way, there’s an expectation (sometimes unspoken) that healers of all kinds will be that reassuring flight attendant to the community during turbulent times. Being a source of support becomes so embedded in our identity that we can lose sight of our own needs for reassurance.
A common misconception is that we healers don’t experience emotional pain the way others do, that we have somehow escaped unscarred from life’s walloping lessons because we “know better.” So not true! Perhaps our chosen professions have taught us coping skills to use in challenging times that we can pass on to others, but we aren’t immune to pain and suffering. Life gets hard for everyone, but not everyone makes it their life’s work to help others.
For that very reason, healers need consistent emotional self-care. To really do the work of being present for others, we MUST check-in with ourselves regularly and realign with our senses of purpose frequently. We need to make sure we’re able to set aside our own issues. And when we can’t get it together, we need to know how to take an emotional time-out. There’s just no short cut around this, people. Believe me, I’ve tried! When we decide to serve others, it’s as if we also make a commitment to become certified explorers, consistently making journeys and returning better able to offer support.
A healer CAN’T be immune to emotional pain, but we CAN be mindful and self-regulated enough to set our pain aside and not let it interfere with giving our full attention to those in our care. How do we do that? Well, perhaps that will be the focus of another blog post. For now: Healer, offer yourself the oxygen mask first.
Bio: Denise Padilla de Font is a professional Art Therapist who specializes in women’s issues and support for healing arts practitioners. With over a decade of service to her community, she founded her private practice, River Water Healing, in 2013. http://riverwaterhealing.com/bio-1/