I am in the classroom, teaching Kindergarten and grade one students. I am talking about feelings.
Our moments of “unkind” and “mean” happen most when we are depleted. If you are hungry, angry, lonely or tired; if you are frustrated, hurt or worried, chances are good, you will be unkind to someone. I am in 12 different classes this month, so I am hearing myself repeat this lesson often.
It is the end of the school day and I have just had a session with a student. I have been working with her and her siblings for the last few years, so I am familiar with her story. By the end of my time with her, I am worried. I am overwhelmed by the story this small being spills in my room. It is too big. I can’t fix it. I can’t figure out a plan of action. It is hard just to be present and listen. I am overwhelmed by the pain and the complexity of the case.
I go and talk to a very wise and compassionate teacher. The teacher pauses to look at me, “Are you okay? You look tired, grey, not yourself.”
It isn’t until she mirrors back my fatigue that I recognize it myself.
My past weekend was busy organizing a cultural event and I did not get a chance to recover. My working days had a few sudden turns of crisis that disrupted the day’s plans. By the middle of the week, I am already depleted. It isn’t until the teacher makes the comment that I realize how much it has affected me.
I am teaching this stuff to little people, repeating the mantra over and over, HALT if you are Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. Yet, there I was, emotionally exhausted, but I could not SEE it until someone pointed it out to me.
I go on a long run, and I can easily accommodate my need for recovery. I make sure the rest of my day is slow, that I stretch and hydrate and keep my muscles warm.
Yet, I still forget to do the same, when I have stretched my emotional muscles. It is vital that I do this. It is vital that all caregivers – teachers, parents, counselors, nurses, prison guards and more – rest and restore when their emotional muscles are depleted.
Failure to do so puts us at risk of dishing out unkind, mean, even traumatic words, thoughts and deeds to those who depend on our care. Failure to do so means we might be asking the vulnerable people we serve the task of taking care of our own fatigue by being “nice” to us, or “loving” us. In many subtle ways, we can require our clients, patients, children and students, the responsibility of taking care of our feelings.
Who takes care of the caregivers? Who makes sure, that the people charged with the well being of others, are resourced? A big part of the answer lies with us, the caregivers. We must practice our own self care and it has to be a priority. This can be difficult with so many competing needs coming at you at the same time. And it is sometimes hard to notice. Here I am teaching the material and I still didn’t catch it in myself!
When you are taking care of others, you need to take care of yourself first. The greater the power imbalance, the more important it is that you make this a priority. The best thing you can do for the people in your care, is to take care of yourself first.
Here is a minimal checklist:
Are you fed and hydrated?
Are you well rested?
Are you clean?
Are you dressed?
Have you moved, or done some physical activity?
Have you spent some time outside?
Have you received loving touch, loving eye contact, loving connection?
Have you talked to someone who you trust?
Have you heard the sound of your own voice?
Do you need some time to be alone and gather your thoughts?