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Walking through the River: Restorative Self-Care for Human Services Workers

by Wendy Grace Evans
reposted from original source:

Marc Potter is a social worker and a man in recovery who understands the essential nature of self-care when working in stressful environments. He dedicates much of his time to training human services professionals on the importance of renewing their capacity for compassion.

“As a social worker at a children’s hospital, I frequently receive the request: ‘Can you see the mom in room three? She is crying,’” shares Marc. He often wonders why it is difficult for a doctor or a nurse to go into room three, place a hand on the mother’s back, express compassion, and ask her to tell them why she is upset.

Recently Marc facilitated a training event for a team of nurses. He asked the team of nurses to reconnect with why they wanted to be nurses in the first place. What were their highest aspirations when they started? What sacrifices did they make to become nurses? He asked the nurses to share what inspired them to become nurses, and to identify the two traits that supported their highest aspirations. After sharing with the group, the nurses were asked to pair off and write down two positive traits describing their partners. Then, they exchanged the note cards identifying the traits they saw in each other.

“When you hand someone a gift, it is important to give and receive with two hands. This helps people to understand that the gift is being given and received with intention,” explains Marc. This exercise was combined with a guided meditation on renewing compassion as a practice to help the nurses be present for their patients at work while caring for themselves. He asked them to recall a time in their lives when someone had cared for them.

“Imagine all the things people have done for you. Visualize your mother, or caregiver. Someone fed you bottles and changed your diapers. Imagine love and care and extend this to teachers, mentors, partners, all the people who have helped us to be where we are today. Allow this to radiate out like a bright light.”

“Many meditation traditions have found that this particular imagery is incredibly powerful,” says Marc. When he does the meditation in the morning, he finds he is able to draw on the strength of the imagery when he is called on to be compassionate during his workday. His meditations are based on readings from The Lost Art of Compassion by Lorne Ladner, Ph.D.

As the nurses shared their stories, Marc circulated around the room, removing himself from the position of expert. “I understood that this group did not need an expert on vicarious trauma, but rather an experience of compassion, gratitude, and nurturing. I let go of being the expert,” says Marc. The result was that the group of nurses found renewed interest and strength in the power of being able to know and support each other.

In the human services field there is a longstanding focus on curing pathology. Marc believes this often adversely affects individual and organizational capacity for self-care. “If I don’t do the things I need to do to replenish my heart, then I walk around disconnected. I am less likely to be present for a patient’s suffering on a deeper level,” says Marc. He knows that he is not tending to himself when he realizes that he is not looking patients in the eye.

“In our culture we often look at self-care in terms of recreation, distraction, and pleasure.” says Marc. “I believe that self-care must be of central importance to workers in human services. You cannot walk through other people’s suffering without being affected, anymore than you can walk through a river without getting wet.”


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