What a Novel Idea: A Course on Taking Care of Ourselves!
By Cathy Hulbert, LCSW
Doing the right thing is often a crystal clear decision. But sometimes ethical dilemmas arise. Life can throw us some “gray” between the black and white. These situations require mental work and even conversations with those we trust.
As a clinical social worker, I am required by law to take periodic ethics courses so that my professional license will be renewed every two years. Without a professional license, I would not be able to work at Hemophilia of Georgia.
A friend asked, “Why do you have to keep taking those classes? You don’t seem like the kind of person who has trouble with ethics.” She was thinking about those drivers’ education classes that people must take when they are really bad drivers.
“No,” I explained. “It’s not like that at all. Ethical behavior is so important that it needs to be kept front and center in our minds. The world is complicated and we need to makes sure we are always doing right by our clients.”
The general belief in the field of social work is that if we are taking care of our clients we are automatically taking care of ourselves, at least from a professional standpoint.
But a recent ethics instructor challenged us to look at things another way: If we are not taking care of ourselves, how can we truly meet the needs of others? Her course was called “The Ethics of Self-Care.” It was designed for social workers, but I think the concept applies to all of us.
Parents, teens, caregivers, teachers, grandparents and healthcare professionals – the list goes on. All of us occasionally encounter tough situations that make us long for a billboard proclaiming, “This way to the right decision!” These complex situations are the psychological equivalent of driving our car over rocky, unfamiliar terrain. Perhaps we are driving in the dark, maybe even in the rain. We know that if we are sleep-deprived, over-stimulated or distracted by internal stress we are more likely to have an accident.
The same is true for relationships, both personal and professional. But rarely do we hear this. Modern life is mostly about juggling many competing demands and feeling inadequate if we can’t keep the juggling act going all of the time.
It was refreshing, recently, to be with a room full of bleeding disorder social workers from all over the country and to be told by our ethics instructor that if we repeatedly fail ourselves we are more likely to fail our clients and our organizations. The instructor shared her own experience of learning this the hard way. She made professional mistakes, she said, because she kept putting herself last. Lines are crossed when the driver is not fully present and awake. Things can get sloppy, even dangerous.
I wanted to share this with you because the world of chronic health conditions can be extremely challenging, whether it is your own condition or that of a family member. Doctors, social workers and nurses can call it a day and go home at night. But YOU are always there, dealing with the unexpected bleed, the change in plans, the late night at a child’s bedside, the trip to see a doctor when you thought you were going to work or having a family outing. We need to give ourselves and each other permission to look inside and periodically say, “How am I doing today? What do I need for my own well-being so that I can keep everything going as well as possible?”
This is not selfish at all when it means the difference between a good decision and one that you might regret. People depend on you. It’s okay to make an A in self-care.