Self Care for Practitioners Working in Challenging Roles
Last year, one of my postgraduate students asked how I was able to stay buoyant when 30 years of my professional life has been connected with some of the worst aspects of humanity; abuse, violence, distress and pain. She was, at that point, struggling as a specialist domestic violence practitioner and felt drained and overwhelmed.
My student invited me to discuss how I remained emotionally safe and how challenging professional roles can and do impact on our well being. I considered what roles I had undertaken throughout my career. As a city based police officer I worked in an intense, public protection role, dealing with some dangerous, distressing and quite frankly, messy incidents. As a probation officer I worked with victims and perpetrators of some truly awful crimes. As a Senior Lecturer in domestic violence, I read, study and teach a subject area that can be dispiriting. Yet through this, I pay close attention to how I feel, why I feel this and how I actively work to remain optimistic. It has taken me half a century of conscious reflection to know how I am able to keep myself emotionally safe and to be able to find the energy to keep bouncing back.
I describe myself as a depressed optimist. This sounds like a contradiction, but one I have seen increasingly written about on social media. Struggling with the darkest of moods, but able to be optimistic at the same time, I push my optimistic side forward to overcome the depressive shadows that creep into my head and emotional wellbeing.
‘See the Beautiful’
I advised my student last year to, ‘see the beautiful,’ to actively look out for the smallest, seemingly insignificant of things that help her, whatever that might be, and to write them down in a notebook. It might be a purring cat, a robin in the garden, the view from a car across a lake, a stranger’s smile.
When life is draining, it takes effort to see the very smallest things that can raise our well being levels. I realise that it is this strategy that helps my resilience levels, and when I can feel the darkness of depression or workload overload begin to overwhelm me, I actively seek out something lovely. It takes practice and conscious effort, but for me it works.
In what can appear an ugly, cruel world at times, I seek out and see what I describe as, ‘the beautiful.’ When life or my depression gets too bleak, I actively concentrate on this and keep a few scribbled notes to remind myself of what lifts my soul, what fills me with joy and I note down the very smallest, simplest pleasures that MUST be noticed in order to push away the clouds from my mind.
Today I have actively noticed and noted - the last of the summer roses in my garden, one of my favourite tracks on the radio, the hailstones bouncing off my car, the softness of my dog’s ear and making a cushion from some newly discovered fabric. Nothing amazing on the grand scale of things, nothing demanding money or privilege, but some simple, everyday things that might go unnoticed unless I consciously make the effort to see, hear or touch them when they occur.
When we work in emotionally draining professional roles, it is so important to consider what self care looks like for us, and actively work to incorporate these into our daily lives. My strategy is a very simple one; it works for me. Not only is it vital to consider what works for you, but to actively incorporate and prioritise it in your life. There are some wonderful individuals in our communities, people who undertake difficult, arduous or draining duties, and it is so important to take care of the self, as well as other people. Self care comes in a range of forms, and some of the simplest things can be the most effective.
‘Only when we first help ourselves can we effectively help others.’
Beverley Gilbert is a Senior Lecturer in Domestic Violence at the Centre for Violence Prevention at the University of Worcester. She is also Founding Director and Operations/Risk Manager of Cohort 4, a women’s survivor peer support organisation in North Warwickshire. Beverley is currently undertaking a PhD examining peer mentoring of women with multiple and complex needs, and in her spare time loves pear drops and sewing with a 1954 vintage, hand crank, Singer sewing machine. @Cohort4Women