When you work for sick people, self care is crucial!

Every time I was hired by a social service agency they’d tell me, “We’re a family here.”

That sounds like a nice sentiment. It’s a promise that you can expect support and acceptance because we’re in this together.

…and it’s almost always a lie.

People who have happy childhoods generally do not go into the healing and helping professions. I don’t know what such people do. Maybe they’re architects or zoo keepers.

In social service agencies, public education, and medical clinics, we relive the relational and behavioral patterns of our families of origin. Sooner of later, someone takes on the role of the kind but ineffective mother who shields us from the narcissistic and needs to be glorified dad. (These roles are not gender specific). The dynamics of abuse and neglect in the workplace are usually only obvious if you’re on the outside looking in.

The rest of are like kids masquerading as adults, desperately try to hide how scared and resentful we are. We get pitted against our colleagues, feeling forced to compete because there isn’t enough to go around. In so doing, we lose the support we might provide each other. We seek to earn approval from folks even less likely to give it to us than the people we were born to.

The more cunning of employers exploit us, giving us just enough to keep us going. The others just treat us as “human resources” – burn us out and hire new ones. This is why so many of us head to private practice – it’s not a burning desire to be self employed, it’s a desire to get out what gets referred to as “politics” but is actually a sick shared experience of mental illness with the pain of unmet needs.

My heart goes out to students and people who are brand new to the professions. Each of us came with certain expectations of professionalism, boundaries, and support. What we experience leaves us doubting ourselves – maybe we weren’t sufficiently trained, maybe we weren’t ready, maybe we’re just too broken to work in the field?

It’s true that the greatest investment we can make in entering and maintaining in this field is in our self care. It’s also true that owners and managers have a responsibility to create a climate in which we feel safe to make mistakes, learn, and develop professionally.

I spoke with a young woman near and dear to my heart recently who expressed feeling a bit lost and disillusioned in her new career. She found herself losing sleep and having intense GI problems before and after work. These are classic manifestations of anxiety and stress and they are all too common.

I know the organization she works for – I’ve served a lot of their employees. I sought to validate her by explaining that I see her workplace as fear based. I encouraged her to plug into her intuition and ask herself – does she really doubt that she’s doing good work or is she simply uncomfortable with what it feels like to interact with her coworkers and supervisors (it’s never the clients – the clients are great).

I shared with her my experience – that even in the worst of organizations, there are still good people. Seek them out and connect with them. Peer support is vital. Additionally, the best encouragement I’ve received has come from administrative assistants and custodial staff (they always know the most about what’s really going on anyway).

More than anything, I encourage my young friend to be mindful of how she copes. We who seek to support the growth and healing of others would do well to take our own advice. Burn out is real and it’s a bitch to come back from. Take care of yourselves and each other. We need you.

Jim LaPierre

About Jim LaPierre

Jim LaPierre LCSW CCS is the Executive Director of Higher Ground Services in Brewer, Maine. He is a Recovery Ally, mental health therapist and addictions counselor. He specializes in facilitating recovery (whether from addiction, trauma, depression, anxiety, or past abuse) overcome obstacles, and improve their quality of life. Jim offers a limited amount of online therapy to those with very flexible schedules.