HELP FOR HELPING PROFESSIONALS: Managing “Self” While Caring for Others

Our passion for servant leadership brought us here. Our innate desire to make a positive impact on the next generation of leaders guides our path. As helping professionals (therapists, educators, social workers, etc.), we live the duality of working daily with our students while simultaneously grinding behind the scenes to make substantive changes to reform education. As rewarding as doing the “work of the heart” can be, possible collateral consequences such as burn out, fatigue, and neglect of personal self-care can come with doing this work. This reflection is for the working professional who is charged with caring for others, but is not always “present” to preserving self.

Laura van Dernoot Lipsky, author of Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide for Self While Caring for Others, defines trauma stewardship as “the entire conversation about how we come to do this work, how we are affected by it, and how we make sense of and learn from our experiences.” This concept is rooted in an understanding of the incredible honor and responsibility that comes with being present for others. As we create spaces for everyone else in our professional lives to honor their hardships, experiences, and criticism; how are we mindful of our own “stuff?”

In my role as the Assistant Dean of Students at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), I manage both academic and non-academic complaints alleging violations of the Student Disciplinary Policy. Our office facilitates the processes, through an administrative action or hearing panel, which ultimately renders decisions accessing responsibility and issuing appropriate sanctions for violations of this policy. The sanctions range from warning to expulsion, or permanent removal from the University of Illinois system. I often hear from many colleagues that they would not want my job. Even I must admit there are days that feel very heavy in my professional identity: The nature of working with people, in difficult spaces, can take a toll of you. Though I am devoted to being present for every student that goes through our conduct process, I do not allow myself to own their experiences. I facilitate their conduct process; I am not responsible for the decisions that were made that brought them here. My role is to educate, challenge, and support them in this process and beyond. This reframed perspective not only empowers me to do this work; but it creates vital boundaries necessary to sustain me in this work long-term.

As helping professionals, it is critical that we are intentional about developing a plan to preserve “us” while we are there for others. Lipsky reminds us, “We [must] develop and maintain a long-term strategy that enables us to remain whole and helpful to others and our surroundings even amid great challenges.” We must be mindful not to assume the pain or paths of those whom we serve as our own. This requires us to be conscious of what we take on. We must accept that we cannot be everything to everyone, at the same time. Sometimes it even means saying, “No” to others, which means saying “Yes” to ourselves.

Trauma stewardship can be an essential framework in nurturing your own life in order for you to continue to be a blessing in the lives of others. I would like to offer five tips to help you embrace your own trauma stewardship:

  1. Live the Advice You Offer to Your Students: It is amazing how often I have witnessed colleagues give their students advice on a wide variety of topics; however, when they are faced with the same challenges, that advice becomes null and void. For example, we encourage students to “step outside of their comfort zones” all the time, but how often do we live those words? Giving advice has a modeling behavior component to it. Our future leaders are watching. If you can empower your students to take risks, what is stopping you from stepping out on faith? For example,
  1. Take Vacations and Use Your Sick Time: Vacation and sick time was allocated for a reason. Plan a vacation and actually take it. Rest. Unplug from your personal devices. Whether staycation or far flung international destination, a change of scenery goes a long way towards restoration. When you begin to feel yourself getting sick, take your sick day. Take care of yourself. See this as a sign from your body to slow down. I know, what about all that work you have to do? Trust me, it will get done. Taking good care of you means the people in your life will receive the best of you, rather than the rest of you.
  1. When in Need, Ask for Help: Having a village of support is critical to your short and long term success. Give serious thought to the role you play within other support circles and the roles that others play in your circle. Outside of your village of family, friends, mentors, and colleagues, do not be afraid to tap into professional services such as a doctor for medical related issues and a therapist for those matters of the mind and heart. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness; it is a symbol of strength and self-awareness.
  1. Practice Self Care: Exercising regularly, reading a book, or spending some quiet time alone are all examples of what it means to practice self-care. Self-care looks different for everyone because we are all different. You must dedicate time to gaining a better understanding of what you need to care for yourself. I encourage you to care for yourself with the same time and energy you would dedicate to others. You must infuse self-care activities into the permanent fabric of your daily routine. They are a part of the work that you do, not outside of your work.
  1. Focus on the Positive: In our profession, we encounter many things that make it hard for us to smile sometimes. We help people through many difficult situations. When it is all said and done, it is easy to focus on the negative aspects of what we have experienced or helped others get through. I believe it is in these moments that I challenge you to take a different approach – focus on the positive. Instead of thinking about the stress in a scenario, zero in on the positive aftermath. Lipsky highlights, “The positive strength and growth that can result from an individual’s struggle with crisis is called Post Traumatic Growth. These newly found strengths might include survival skills, self-acceptance, and a greater appreciation and understanding of life in general.”

Trauma stewardship means remembering the privilege and sacredness of being called to help. We are not in this movement in isolation. We are bonded in our universal passion and commitment for our youth and education. You are important. Embrace the trauma stewardship that comes with doing what we do best – transforming the lives of others WHILE making sure we are free to live an authentic life of our own!