Today I'm grateful for School Counseling Professer Dr. Erin Mason's visit to the Corner because she's here to help us with a non-negotiable: Self-care. Welcome, Erin!
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The Struggle for Self-Care: A Confession by Erin Mason, Ph.D.
Guilty as charged. I’m not good at self-care. One of the ironies of being a school counselor, or a professor of school counseling, is that we often emphasize to others the need for regular self-care. I, like so many, have good intentions about self-care but contribute to “the glorification of busy.”
My particular form of glorification comes from feeling a sense of self worth by being accomplished, scheduled and involved. People often ask me, “How do you do all that you are doing?” I never know how to reply to this and I often stumble with an answer. My “busy” as a school counselor was different from my “busy” as a counselor educator but the “busy-ness” factor was and is there nonetheless. I got, and still get, a lot of positive reinforcement for being “busy” because it is wrapped up in my professional passion, commitment and natural gravitation to things that require leadership and advocacy.
Let me lay down a little truth here for those of you on the front lines. As a school counselor a lot of my “busy” went towards worrying about my students; the constant possibility of dealing with abuse, neglect, suicide, sexual assault, loss, trauma. This, all in addition of course, to trying to educate and promote my role and my program in schools and to colleagues who didn’t always, “get it.” I held a great sense of responsibility for doing the “right thing,” an important characteristic for a school counselor that so many of us have. However, this characteristic can easily morph into a sort of “savior syndrome” that can undo you as a school counselor when you are not paying attention. When I was in this “savior” place and attending less to self-care, my anxiety could be all-consuming, paralyzing even. Sometimes my health would suffer and I would have raging headaches, lose or gain weight, and have difficulty sleeping; it was real and it was a major self-care issue. I can remember ruminating so much about one student in particular that I called his teacher (thank goodness we had a strong working relationship) at 3 o’clock in the morning to review the crisis that had happened that day and make sure she thought I had covered all the bases. This anxiety stuff in our field is no joke and if you are reading this and relating, do yourself a favor, check your self-care and get some help.
Whether it is “busy-ness” of mind or “busy-ness” of calendar, these are some of the things that I have come to rely on to bring me back to a place where I can attend to self-care at much needed times:
1. Permission to enjoy work and working hard: Our society sends us so many conflicting messages about what it is we are supposed to do and who we are supposed to be. Most of the work I do, I thoroughly enjoy. So even though I could stand to slow down and say “no” more often, I’ve come to accept that enjoying what I get out of being career-driven is okay for me as long as I don’t “glorify” it or let it isolate me from the world.
2. Personal Counseling: Yes, we should do it. I haven’t in a while and I should get back to it. Things are clearer when I attend to my own issues and I know it makes me better at being a model for my students.
3. Get outside: Physically removing myself helps me to gain perspective when I’m experiencing negativity, confusion or anxiety. Sometimes getting outside is just literally stepping out of the building for a few minutes or it is going for a walk, sitting in the sun or focusing on nature.
4. Take time out during the day: This happens in different ways for different people. Your time out should be what works for you. One of mine, I confess, is napping. I love naps, I find them restorative because during a nap I’m turning my brain and my body off.
5. When Things Fall Apart, by Pema Chodron or pretty much anything by Pema Chodron. I have found great solace in the words, practices and traditions of Buddhism even though I don’t identify as a Buddhist.
Of course eating healthy, exercising and sleeping regularly, and being with friends or family who value you are other strategies that most of us know already.
Ultimately my struggle, and that of so many of us, comes down to finding balance. Self-care then, I think is a goal, an aspiration, not something I’m sure I’ll ever achieve as a final endpoint. And I’m okay with that. I’ll be working on it all of my life. And so will most of us as we struggle to interpret and address the demands of our work, the messages of our society, and the needs of our world.
Author bio: Erin Mason is an assistant professor in the Counseling program at DePaul University. Prior to joining the faculty in 2008, Erin was a Professional School Counselor in Georgia for 13 years. Erin worked in several middle schools in urban, suburban and rural settings, including the two largest districts in the state.
Erin is active in professional School Counseling organizations and legislative work at both state and national levels. She has published in scholarly journals with a focus on the professional identity of school counselors. Erin engages in collaborative work with various organizations and schools to create positive change for students and their academic, career and personal/social needs. Erin is a regular presenter in her field and serves as the 2012-2013 president of the Illinois School Counseling Association.