Get ready guys. This one is brutally honest. Sometimes, therapists are the worst at self-care. We tend to worry more about our patients’ emotional state then we do our own. We sometimes over estimate our own resilience, thinking we can work our stuff out in our own minds. Notice how I’m saying “we” and “our”? That’s so I can convince myself that it’s not, just me. But actually, I’m just talking about myself. I thought I had safe guards in place. I was practicing good self-care, and yet in August I noticed that I wasn’t feeling like myself. I was feeling stressed, pretty consistently, and knew I needed a break from my job. But, I didn’t take a break. I kept going, and going and going. Then it was September and I knew I REALLY needed a break from my job. I was having mini anxiety attacks walking into my office each day, I was dreading going to work each day. But I didn’t take a break. I didn’t reach out for support. I didn’t go to a therapist. I didn’t do anything I should have done. I kept going.
Last week, on Tuesday night, I cried all the way home from work because of stress. I felt empty. I felt like I didn’t have anymore to give. I felt like a lesser version of myself. I kept saying to myself, “I can’t go back there.” Wednesday morning I woke up and cried getting ready for work because I didn’t want to go. I had a full blown anxiety attack driving to work. I got to my office and realized I had hit the metaphorical wall.
I texted a friend and they replied, “Heal the healer. You’re not taking good care of yourself.” I wanted to argue, but I knew it was true. In desperation, I contacted all my patients scheduled for this week, and cancelled them all. I thought relief would follow, but it didn’t. Guilt was all I felt. Guilt for letting my patients down. Shame for not being “strong” enough to keep going. Fearful at the financial consequences this decision might have. But, as I told one of my afternoon patients that I wouldn’t see her the next week, she asked why I was taking time off. I was honest with her. Do you know what she said to me? She said, “Thank you for modeling good self-care for me. If you can give yourself permission to rest, I feel like I can do the same.” That spoke to my heart. Maybe allowing myself to rest didn’t have to cause me to feel guilt and shame. Allowing myself to rest could be good for me, but for my patients as well.
Compassion fatigue is what it’s called. Here’s the official description, “Compassion Fatigue is a state experienced by those helping people or animals in distress; it is an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper.” Dr. Charles Figley. As a therapist, my job is to extend empathy to my patients hour after hour. When I practice good self-care, I can give this day after day. But in August, when I didn’t act, knowing I was feeling this fatigue, the downhill slide got really slippery. My anxiety started to increase, my depression symptoms started appearing, but I didn’t let anyone know. I didn’t act in response to my fatigue. I tried to ignore it. I didn’t go to a therapist. I did all the things I teach my patients not to do.
So this week off, I’ve said “no” to everyone. I’ve rested. I’ve read and I’ve written. I’ve connected with nature. I’ve prayed. I know that I need to rest. and that’s not only necessary, but acceptable. My boss, Steve, was so encouraging of my time off. My co-workers were so encouraging of my time off. My friends were so encouraging of my time off. I realized if I would have reached out, I would have gotten support. No one expected me to keep going, except, well…me.
I know some of you have stressful jobs. I know some of you are caregivers. I know some of you are healers and first responders. I know some of you are parents giving at maximum levels 24/7. When you are feeling empty, please reach out. When you are feeling like you have no more, please acknowledge where you are and rest. When you are feeling like a lesser version of yourself, it’s okay to recharge with self-care. Don’t wait until you hit the wall. Don’t be like me.
Be kind (to yourself), be grateful, be courageous!