Many years ago, when I was a field worker, I had a friend name Della. As a social worker in child protective services, she investigated child abuse and neglect alongside me. She loved the challenge of the job, often expressing that she wouldn’t be as happy anywhere else. It was common for us to be deeply involved in our cases, trying to finish up all the interviews so that we could make an informed Assessment about the safety of the children. Oftentimes, we did not leave the office to go home until after 9pm. I would head home, visions of a bubble bath and a glass of wine, filling my head with promise of easing the stress of the day. But not Della.
Della was always involved in some project. When there was a need in our town for someone to organize an event, they called Della.
And she said Yes.
She organized all the fundraisers, lock-ins, and fellowship events for her church. When the small community in which we worked had a project in mind, Della was the one they called. She organized Christmas festivals, 5K races, and craft fairs. Della was in charge of organizing the town’s benevolent ministries as well: arranging casserole delivery to new mothers and families in bereavement.
And then there was her family. Della was the oldest of 5 children and whenever a family issue erupted, Della flew to the rescue. She hosted all family gatherings as well.
I used to call my friend Saint Della. Even when we worked a very late night on a particularly bad case, Della would leave the office to go work on an outside project. She seemed incapable of Saying No. I helped her on many of these events, but I chose the ones that interested me. She never chose. She just said Yes.
Over the two years, I worked with her, I watched the burden of all that responsibility weigh her down. She would come to work sometimes so tired, that her focus was off, frustrating her as she tried to locate a file she had worked on the previous night and forgetting to write down appointments. She started being ill. Colds, stomach illnesses, headaches were constantly plaguing her. As a friend, I told her on multiple ocassions that She needed to set some limits and pay attention to her own needs. But she would always say
“They need me.”
My friend Della had a stroke at the age of 56. She did not die, and actually made an almost complete recovery. The only limitation she had to endure was the need for a walking cane to support her weakened right leg. However, because of the lessened mobility, she retired from the job She loved.
Self care is as important as caring for others. For if you ignore your own needs in order to meet those of others, you will eventually burn out. Then, you cannot help anyone.
Della needed to be needed. As social workers, we all have that trait in varying degrees. Most people are drawn to social work for the very purpose of helping those in need. They help families out of crisis because of their commitment to helping them.
But the very thing that pushed us towards social work can also push us to ignoring our own need to replenish, refill and recharge.
We are asked to take on outside projects and we say yes. And the more we say Yes, the more we are asked. If we continue to say yes to every project, we end up like Della, who ignored her own needs until her body gave out.
What if you love helping others and doing outside projects?
Doing for others, even outside of work is never wrong. I also enjoy participating in opportunities outside of my job. It can be extremely fulfilling to be part of the change you wish to see in the world. And it is important to my own replenishment to participate in these events. You may have some projects that energize you like that. I am not saying to stop the things that fill you up.
But how do you strike a balance?
Examine yourself. If you have so much on your plate that you are ignoring your own needs: evidenced by growing frustration, constant exhaustion, irritability, and even physical complaints. If you find yourself becoming “less caring about things”, it is time to evaluate your self care plan. You are pouring out all of your water, but nothing is coming back in. Even camels cannot go without water indefinitely.
BUT, How do you say No, when everyone needs you?
Sorry. But the painful truth is, everyone needs someone, but it does not have to be you. There are others in the community who can fill that need. I had to learn that truth as well. Sometimes, the reason you get all the calls, is because you don’t say No.
Self assessment points you towards the solution. Decide what is truly important to you, prioritizing on paper if you need to visualize it. Put your self care very high on the list. Remember that if you are out of water you can’t give to others. Include those projects that energize you: perhaps organizing the mission fundraiser for your church or the town’s 5K run. Those are the projects you continue doing. Practice saying No to the others.
There is an art to saying No. It does not have to be a negative experience. When the call comes, remember your list. It is then that you say, “right now I am involved in some other projects and I couldn’t give this one the attention it deserves.” Or you could say something like, “I really appreciate you thinking of me for this project, but I have committed my time to another one. ”
Saying no is difficult for some of us. But it is so important to our self care. Overextending ourselves can effect our job, our relationships with our friends, family, life partners, our children and ourselves. Make time to refill your own bucket so you will be able to pour out water to others.
It’s OK to say NO.