What NFP workers need to know about care in the time of COVID - Part one
7 June 2020 at 10:31 am
Rachel Clark shares four micro-practices that have helped her build compassion for herself and avoid burn-out, in the first in a four-part series providing practical support to help those working in the NFP sector with their wellbeing and mental health.
As a teacher and community development practitioner, my last three decades have involved working with individuals and groups to build stronger, healthier, and more connected communities. Over this time, I have developed a keen understanding of and appreciation for the wisdom and practice approaches from across the disciplines of teaching, social and youth work, community development and psychology.
Here, now, I seek to share with you some of my learnings as we all emerge into the light of lifting COVID-19 restrictions. It is true indeed that during our time in quarantine we have needed to reorientate our working and living practices in 360-degree shifts, and recent announcements will require us to continue innovating in our interactions with each other. All of this change, and the work that is so desperately needed in our communities, takes a considerable toll and so we must attend to our own practices of individual and collective care.
In a four part series, I will highlight my CARE Practice Framework for workers in the not-for-profit sector to focus on in this time and beyond, framing professional well-being across the following subject areas: compassion for self; alignment to self and purpose; renewal of mind, body and spirit; and empowerment.
Compassion for self
One of my guiding values is compassion. I have always worked in its service, driven by a belief that “I am you, and you are me”, so to “suffer with”, as the root of the word’s meaning, seems appropriate as a guiding light in a world with so much suffering. But there is a problem with this as a core value of one’s professional identity; one which over time burns the bearer up. When the WHO classified burn-out as an occupational disease in 2019 those of us who work with people close up, and all of their needs, nodded our heads in recognition. It was around this time that I sought to interrogate my relationship with compassion and develop a healthier framing of it: one which does not abandon the call of this noble principle but seeks to deliver it to ourselves also. Since then I have evolved an understanding of four micro-practices that have helped me and others in work that centres the human experience to move closer to compassion for ourselves: the first pillar in my CARE Practice Framework.
1) Emotional connection
Preeminent in all human-centred work – and life I would add – is that of emotional connection. Not only do we need it to survive, it is the foundation stone of being able to assist others. During my teacher training it was impressed upon me that “it was all about relationships”. The wisdom goes that first you must connect and build trust with your students, then you stand a chance of being able to teach the curriculum. Without connection, a teacher’s role feels hollow and very very hard. Similarly, in social, emotional or health work, connection with clients allows for us to be “let in” to the world of others from where we can enable. So, I suggest that we turn this focus towards our own life: who are we emotionally connected to in a way that enables us?
Task 1: Consider who in your life can “hold you” in your human messiness? Are there people who are on the periphery of your world who you would like to bring closer because they are good for your emotional health? Similarly, are there others in your everyday life who do not support you, or who drain your energy? Can you begin to make small changes to enhance healthy emotional connections?
The antecedent of a reaction – the trigger that prompts us to act – can teach us much about unresolved past pain still present in our lives. Again, in teacher training we are taught the Antecedent Behaviour Consequence model (ABC) for behaviour management: it suggests that if we are aware of what happens just before a student reacts, we can manage the behaviour more productively through understanding, and offer a suitable consequence to guide students to an accommodation. So too for ourselves. Too often we fall into habitual patterns of being “triggered”, causing us pain and often confusion. So, let us become more familiar with what triggers us in the hope that we can resolve some of the wounds we have carried.
Task 2: Spend time in close observation with your responses to stimulus: a thought, a sight, sound or smell; a taste or touch. Identify the connection between a trigger and your response in a behaviour, be it intra or interpersonal in action. Seek further guidance from a therapist if helpful. Aim to move beyond your past into healthier communion with yourself.
As human-centred practitioners – a phrase I use to describe those who work with human need and vulnerability – we are kind. No doubt kindness is a core value, along with compassion, and it is acted out countless times each day to others in the way we talk, the deeds we do, the care and consideration we show when doing such deeds. It comes as second nature for us to extend kindness to others. Yet when do we turn that kindness to ourselves? I have worked with many who, when asked how they are kind to themselves, have drawn a blank because it is so little practised that the self-kindness muscle has atrophied. Indeed, we often have such high expectations of ourselves maybe because we know how much need there is in the world, that we can be deeply unkind to ourselves: we say things like “why aren’t I more robust” or “what’s wrong with me, toughen up”. It takes practice to remember how to be kind to ourselves, and what it feels like when we are being so.
Task 3: Answer the question “when I do/say this for/to myself I know I am being kind to myself”. Then practise. Support yourself further with “loving-kindness” meditations.
We all have strengths: skills, talents, ways of being in the world that serve us and those around us. A strengths-based approach originates from social, youth and community work, and is used in psychology and teaching too. It recognises the existing resources and attributes that each person and community already hold and seeks to use these strengths to extend their capacities into new ways of thinking, learning and living. It is a beautiful and fundamentally positive way of believing in our unique capacities to grow and change by using what we already have: our own unique strengths. How about we use this approach on ourselves?
Task 4: Finish the statement: “I am good at….” Next write down what your closest friends and loved ones say you do really well. From these exercises compile a list of strengths you have and refer back to it often with pride. Build the list as you start to notice more of your strengths. Use your existing strengths to help you in areas where you are personally struggling.
When we are able to connect in to those who nourish and hold us with care, to recognise what pains us and seek to move beyond this, treat ourselves with kindness, and truly value who we are and how we are in the world, we are able to live in a relationship with compassion to ourselves that can serve us deeply, as we do the work we are called to: work that is so important in this time, and beyond.
About the author: Rachel Clark is a teacher and community development practitioner with 25 years practice experience. She teaches and mentors future community service workers, organisers and activists to make an impact in their community from a strengths-based, self-care and diversity perspective. Rachel is also the founder of Lumin Leaders (@luminleaders), an organisation which guides human-centred practitioners through educational and psychological support services, and a host of an embryonic podcast called Working With Purpose. Her core values are connection, collaboration, compassion, and curiosity which she uses every-day in her human-centred practices of teaching and community building.