The Big Picture

February 24, 2012

Photo: My grandparents' porch. Alma, MI.

I have experienced a change in perspective: regarding my health, regarding my work life, regarding my personal well-being.
This week, I became frustrated while discussing the concept of self-care with a supervisor and some colleagues. I came away from this discussion with the distinct understanding that self-care, while touted as a keystone element of best social work practice, is not very much a priority in my current work environment. That because I chose to care for others professionally, I should not be concerned with caring for myself. This is ludicrous. This is unacceptable.

I am not resentful. I am a problem-solver. I know that change occurs slowly, over time. I have recently been inspired by the words of writers and bloggers who approach their personal and professional lives from a place of balance and harmony (see also this lovely post about breaking the rules). I refuse to neglect my own well-being for the sake of those I serve. I have therefore created the following set of principles to guide my new, balanced life:

+ Take time off. I hate taking time off. When I return, it seems the workload has inevitably increased. This is a powerful notion because it feeds my need to feel recognized, to feel valued: how could my clients and my colleagues possibly function without me? They can, and they do. And they will, when I take my next step, professionally. Today, I took the day off due to snowy roads. It is amazing how much I have accomplished since 8:00 AM.

+ Work 40 hours per week. That's what I get paid to do, isn't it? I spend over an hour in the car each work day, commuting alone. Most days I am in my car for at least two hours. I have worked more twelve hour days than I can keep track of. No more. Weekends and evenings are for me: to spend time with my fiance and my kitty and my friends, to cook and eat delicious & healthy meals, to take photo-walks and to read for pleasure, to go thrift-shopping, to clean our apartment, to craft silly things, to sleep in if I want, to set new traditions (such as Saturday morning fika with Ryan).

Stop taking things personally. I work with traumatized teenage girls. I've grown about ten layers of skin over the past year and a half. But it isn't my clients that so often get me down; it's my colleagues, it's the child welfare system, it's the dogma of social service agencies that refuse to roll with change. As soon as I accepted these truths - that change comes slowly; that it is okay to contradict and to combat those involved in the struggle; and that we are all imperfect and always growing and changing - I accepted the inevitable frustrations inherent to so-called "good work." It is only as personal as I allow it to be.

Cry, create, and combat. When I was getting my MSW, I completed fieldwork at a prominent child trauma assessment center in Southwest Michigan. The 10 months I spent with this agency forever shaped my clinical social work practice and my perspective on the meaning of living in a traumatized world. Each week, we would sit with children and adolescents who had been abused, abandoned, sent from foster home to foster home, and so on and so on; we would try to understand their pain, their strengths, their joys, and - most importantly - their needs. Most weeks, as a team, we would cry together. We would mourn the losses and the pain these children carried with them. We held their pain, and then we released it. I have yet to find another professional environment like this, but I am always, always searching for it. I cannot release the pain of the children I serve without engaging in ongoing, creative expression. Over the past six months, I have neglected this blog; my photography; my need to craft things; my need to be out in the world; my need to be inspired. No more complacency. I have important things to share with this world.

Stop beating up on myself. I have not yet accepted the notion that it is through failure that we learn the most important lessons. I know there is truth in this saying. I want to learn to accept my own failures and to learn from them.

Read, read, read, read, read. I have found that when I make time to read for pleasure, my brain is stimulated in a way that enhances my experience of work and play. I problem solve. I think outside the box. I consider alternative conclusions. I get crazy ideas and feel inspired to follow them. I am happier, more fulfilled, more inspired, and more aware. I have started a list of books read this year and plan to post it here so that those who would like can follow and share. Currently, I am reading and loving this.

Photo: this morning, snow day at home.

I know that it is mainly family reading this blog (please correct me if I'm wrong). I appreciate those who chose to read this post and wonder if it resonated with you, in small or big ways. Let's discuss! What are you doing to focus on the big picture in your life?

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  1. Self care is so important, and something I struggle with all the time. My next step is taking a mindfulness meditation class starting this monday--I'll have to let you know how it goes. Many of the people who were at the orientation for this class introduced themselves as people who were doctors, nurses, social workers etc and they were interested in the class because they spent so much time caring for others and often neglected themselves. So it seems this is industry wide and not just your frustrating colleagues. I applaud your resolve to take better care of yourself and hope this discussion will keep me motivated to do the same!
    I guess I'm not family but I'm a good enough friend that we'll say it's the same difference, eh?

  2. Thanks, Sam! I consider you part of my extended family. :) It is definitely an industry-wide issue. In reality, it is a cultural epidemic. We live in a world that is so fast-paced, so oriented toward work, that does not value down-time, or time spent with oneself and loved ones. If I keep going the way I have been, I'm going to have serious health problems! Let's keep each other motivated!

  3. Hey Mallory! I really enjoyed this post. I'm glad to hear you're carving out some time for yourself amidst the chaos of work. Being at a non-profit, I often hear that money should be spent on the organization's mission and nothing else - including staff time off. Fitting a vacation in can be pretty tough - even when my schedule allows it, I can still feel the silent glares telling me I'm wasting precious community resources on a whimsy. How I wish sick days were called personal days, because we really all do need them. Until then, I make do by practicing yoga in empty work spaces, going for walks around the office neighborhood, and engaging coworkers in personal conversations rather than always being in work lingo mode. It's working...but a personal day here and there would do the trick too. I hope you'll have more days like this - especially when you can enjoy nice weather!

  4. Thanks, Kim. It is sad that in the non-profit world, most decisions come down to funding. My agency actually does have a pretty nice PTO policy, and I don't get grief for taking days off here or there. I've had growing frustrations at work but feel a certain freedom having processed those frustrations and created a plan of action. I'm glad to hear that you have strategies for the work day itself! I work in an office park off of an expressway...not much to explore, unfortunately. :( Although there is a pond and a little benched area in a secret nook outside our building. It's my special break spot in warmer months!

  5. Yes you are right, it really isn't just industry- it's the whole culture. I consider myself lucky to also be in a non-profit situation with generous vacation time allowance and a tremendous amount of flexibility to encourage self care. So, my biggest road block these days is myself. I'm just hopeful that someday I might become my biggest advocate too!

  6. You can do it, Sam. You deserve it.


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