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Self Care

Those that work in care giving professions – educators, health workers and the like – give a lot of their energy. Most are so invested that they continually go above and beyond the call of duty. If it comes to picking up one more case, or letting someone go without a needed service, the answer is to pick up the extra case. There is rarely a choice in this matter. Passion, dedication and empathy dictate that caregivers would far sooner work nonstop than let someone go without a needed service. “Well, sure I can do it – I can sneak the paperwork in from 12:30-1 a.m. and still get 5 hours of sleep. No worries!”

But, it is a worry. The same passion, dedication and empathy that drive us (and here I will switch to directing my commentary toward the education realm that I know) also drain us. Because we are so invested in our work, we (generally) can’t say no. We keep giving and giving and giving until there’s nothing left.

All of this giving can have disastrous consequences. Burnout is so common that copious resources on the Web are dedicated to it. Even WebMD has a page specifically on Caregiver Burnout. This page is directed toward care giving a relative, but it can, and should, be generalized to all of those that spend their lives dedicated to the care of others. This page lists out the signs and symptoms of Caregiver Burnout, among them: fatigue, irritability, anxiety, stress, withdrawal and depression.

We don’t know how to draw our boundaries, because enforcing limits means saying “no” to someone who needs support. We enter into a life of care giving precisely because we are so attuned to the needs of those who constantly hear the word “no.” So, caregivers often end up as martyrs because we won’t take care of ourselves, but also refuse to accept support from other people. We do this because we feel too guilty in both cases. “Shouldn’t all of that care be directed at the people who really need it?” we think to ourselves. The problem is that not taking care of ourselves leads to disastrous consequences.

For educators, I believe that burnout has become even more common and more acute over the past decade. Focus on “demonstrable” student outcomes has become prioritized, often sacrificing critical thinking, student engagement and creativity along the way. Teachers have lost much of their freedom to create lessons directed specifically for the needs of their students. Instead, they are expected to teach to standards in a standardized way. Don’t get me wrong, I think national standards can be an incredibly useful tool and a wonderful way to help ensure youth are learning critical competencies. However, nationalized standards can have drastic consequences when applied too rigidly in countries with great diversity in terms of culture, socio-economic status, language and the like if teachers are not given license to design their own lessons to teach in ways that they see fit. Content should be standardized; pedagogy should not. While this is another topic entirely, its mention is important to understanding teacher burnout. When teachers are divorced from the subject matter, students are in turn. Teachers and students feed off of each other’s enthusiasm and passion. When no one is engaged, it is only a matter of time before that uphill battle is lost.

The sad reality is that teachers, and all caregivers, are constantly fighting this losing battle. “I can’t do anything right,” is an oft-heard refrain. The feelings of hopelessness, of not having support, of feeling like no one understands you are consuming. But, yet, we keep giving because we can’t turn our back. Our bodies give us warning signs that we need to slow down and look out for ourselves. We get sick or lethargic.

The sad reality is, most caregivers don’t heed the warning signs until it’s too late. People get crushed under the weight of trying to hold everyone else up and not doing anything to hold themselves up, or accepting this help from others. Eventually, they hit the breaking point and end up giving out. Sometimes this leads to a job change, sometimes to a career change altogether, other times to chronic illness. Schools are losing teachers to burnout at alarming rates. The National Center for Education Statistics says that in the U.S. half of all teachers quit in their first five years, a truly shocking statistic. Teachers need help and support processing the intense emotions that come with supporting youth, particularly at-risk youth.

My entire career in education has focused on the most at-risk populations: low-income students of color, many of them the children of immigrants who do not speak the language of their children’s teachers. I am lucky to have been a part of an amazing group sponsored by the Foundation that provided the much-needed spiritual and emotional support that educators, and caregivers in general, far too often lack. I was very fortunate to learn early in my career the importance of self-care. I believe it is why I have been able to continue to be effective at what I do.

The last few months of the school year were very difficult. It seems everyone around me hit a wall, and I certainly felt myself hit one. Both staff and students looked drained. I’m sure I looked it, and I certainly felt it. Scanning myself, I realized my shoulders were hardened with tension – everything ached, really, inside and out. I needed to take a step back, breathe and let the tension out. I had a gloriously relaxing vacation in the States, and came back renewed.

But, after a few weeks of work, I have started feeling a little bit of tension creeping in again. I immediately called a friend who is a masseuse and built her own spa. “¿Puedo venir el sábado?” Claro que sí, nena – of course you should come on Saturday. Mayans have used spas for thousands of years to keep balance and tranquility. I needed to be sure I was maintaining these things in my life.

I woke up early and walked the 2 miles to her hillside hideaway, buried deep in trees and nestled beside a small stream. I felt the weight instantly lifting. “Ven acá,” she said, as she ushered me inside and then back to the spa. She put more wood on the fire as I got ready to enter the adobe structure. “Relax, close your eyes and just breathe,” she told me. I felt a rush as the sweetly scented steam hit my lungs. She had added herbs to aid me in opening up and relaxing. It tingled, at once invigorating and soothing. I remembered my yoga training and concentrated on deep, cleansing breaths, feeling the tension exiting with every exhale. Wraps of wwamp water mud and honey left me feeling at once more relaxed and more invigorated. After the spa, I rinsed with water specially concocted with herbs and flowers.

Then it was time for a massage accompanied by soft music and sage. I learned to breathe in time with her kneading, as she varied between hands, elbows, feet and toes to work the knots out. Although at the end the weight of her entire body was on me as she stood on my back, I felt immensely lighter. When she was done, I took a few minutes to revel in tranquility before floating up and out of the room.

I joined my friend at her kitchen table, where her dogs joined us. One, a 90-pound sweetheart, nuzzled himself into me. “He never does that with people he doesn’t know,” she said. He stayed glued, while I soaked up every bit of puppy love. Then my friend read me my Mayan horoscope. The more she read, the more deeply it resonated.

I have the great fortune of being born in 10 Aq’ab’al, the sign of beginnings. Aq’ab’al is about hope and solutions, asking the world to carry out actions transparently. They say people born on this day have one foot in the past and one in the future, they use this rooting in the past to advise on future courses of action. Aq’ab’al is a sign that feeds off of the energy around them – just as we feel more engaged with people’s positive energy, we just as easily be brought down by negative energy. That sounds pretty spot-on to me.

After sharing a cup of tea and enjoying the sunlight, I thanked my friend and bade goodbye to her and my newest canine companion. I felt completely at peace and back in touch with myself as I glided back home, remembering just how important it is to take a little time for yourself. Whether it means cooking a favorite meal, taking a lovely hike in the sunshine or engaging in a favorite sport, one of the most important things we can do to care for those in our charge is to care for ourselves.

This week, I saw peace in pampering.

More about Shannon Malone…