I have a job that tends to have an endless source of vicarious trauma. I work with vulnerable youth and bear witness to their joy, pain, and sorrow. And I am often reminded of the stories that we all hold. The pure resilience of the human spirit is never lost on me. Most days I leave work feeling inspired to be a better person, a better clinician, and just better. Some days…well some days just kick me in the teeth. This is when I need my self-care more than ever.
Today happen to be one of those days and I knew I was going to need to pay attention to my regimen of self-care. It started with my favorite P!nk CD at the maximum volume on the way home, led to a walk with the dog at the park, and may wrap up with some mindless television watching after a thoughtful spurt of writing. Is today a model of good self-care? Maybe. I guess it depends on who you ask. See, I will be the first to tell my friends to take good care after days like this. I will ask them, “What is something fun you can do tonight? Something relaxing?” The problem with this approach is that fun and relaxing activities are great, but they don’t often release my heart of the burden that I absorbed that day. When you are truly present for someone in a time of need and bear witness to their pain and allow them a space to release their energy; a simple activity is not going to erase a memory that was etched in your heart. Sure, I feel better on the short-term. I lower my blood pressure back down and give my heart a healthy boost through my structured activity. But the pain has not dissolved, not completely.
So I’m trying something new. Well, maybe not new…but I am adding something to my usual ‘go to’ strategies. I am exploring this idea of more purposeful kindness. Not only to myself, but to others. I am finding that the more kind I am to others and to myself, the more I heal that vicarious trauma and ultimately the more I can give in those moments that I am called upon. I am doing this a variety of ways. First of all, I’m not criticizing myself for not knowing what to say in a tense moment, instead I’m practicing self-compassion and giving myself permission to simply not know how to respond. I also am being proactive with kindness and taking opportunities to smile at people more and say ‘good morning’. I am reaching out to people I haven’t spoken to in a while just to say hi and that I was thinking of them. I am taking many deep breaths on my commute home and remembering that everyone wants to get home just as much as I do and that if I let one car merge over (even though they don’t have a blinker on), I’m not hurting myself with this act of kindness and actually improving my own well-being in this process. The easiest way I’m practicing is by asking myself “what is the most kind response I can offer with this particular situation?” And the most beautiful part of this process is the more I increase my own awareness, the more opportunities I am realizing each day.
It’s not that being kind keeps me from experiencing pain or prevents the sadness from hurting my heart some days, but I can tell you that it has insulated my heart and soul to a point that makes it easier to recover from these hard times. I still need to do the fun things and relax my body and mind. It’s just that adding kindness to this regimen provides a thicker layer of insulation from the harsh impact of trauma and pain. So today I am going to practice kindness to those around me. I’m not sure what that will look like just yet, but I’m sure it will come to me soon. That’s the beautiful part of life….if you want an opportunity to practice something all you have to do is open your eyes to see what is present in front of you.