I would like to thank Erlene Grise-Owens, Partner, The Wellness Group, ETC for taking the time to talk with me about her work, especially because I got confused about time zones and left her waiting in the Zoom meeting. Erlene is a social worker who writes primarily about provider mental health and self-care, issues that we in the field often put to the side.
Erlene transitioned from her teaching role to full-time writing, consulting, and training after she was fired from a tenured full professor teaching position when she spoke out about racism at her institution. She noted that this reason was not specifically given when she was fired, but the timing was telling, and the university was censured after the incident. She refers to this as her “refirement” rather than a retirement, and she wants people to know that being let go can be empowering rather than life-shattering. “Getting fired is not the worst thing that can happen to you, professionally. The worst thing that can happen to you is that you stop living out your values.”
Although Erlene is not doing therapy at this time, her articles about self-care are invaluable for those of us combating burnout during this difficult time. Recently, she co-authored a piece about our self-care stories, as well as a piece about the interconnectedness of self-care. You can find even more of her articles here. Self-care is something we as helping professionals pay lip service to without paying “serious attention” to our own needs, so Erlene’s work helps us recognize and honor our own needs.
Erlene also literally wrote the book on self-care for helping professionals. The A-to-Z Self-Care Handbook for Social Workers and Other Helping Professionals addresses all the areas we need to focus on in ourselves in order to be good at our jobs. But it’s not enough to care for ourselves in order to care for others! She said, “We made progress in our understanding of self-care by using the metaphor of self-care is like a mask that you put on so that you can help others if the plane is crashing. … But the problem with that metaphor is it perpetuates this kind of insidious idea that self-care is something we do when the plane is crashing, and we do it so we can help others.” Sure, there are times we need to get through an immediate crisis, but we need the ongoing and preventative support.
Erlene has a beautiful analogy to shift our focus of self-care from crisis management to ongoing, sustainable practice: “I encourage folks to think of self-care as the breath. Self-care is how we sustain our breath, self-care is whatever we do to help ourselves breathe more deeply and in healthy ways, so in that sense, … words matter. Words and the metaphors we use, the terms we use, both describe and determine how we see things.” She shared, “If we only do self-care when we’re crashing, we’re going to always be crashing.” We want to prevent the crashes all together where we can.
This emphasis on self-care for providers is so important, especially during times of high stress. We have been hit with stress and burnout. It’s something I have addressed in this blog, and it’s something I personally continue to work to combat. Erlene pointed out, “Self-care must be part of what we do; it’s part of who we are.”
The first step, according to Erlene, is awareness. “Helping professions, by virtue of being called ‘helping professions,’ … that term conveys that we’re here to help others.” She said that we need to think of self-care “as a human right.” For instance, “Leisure time, time off, is a human right.” We as “helping professionals” need to re-frame our idea of self-care from something we do to allow us to help our clients, but as something we have a right to as humans ourselves. “You don’t have to earn it. It’s how we live as human beings.”
Erlene pointed out that this sounds so easy but is challenging to put into practice. “Taking care of ourselves is being attentive to our fullness as human beings: What do I, myself, need and want and desire?” It is okay to do self-care for yourself, not just as a way to ensure that you can keep helping others. In order to do this, Erlene cites Mary Pipher who suggests viewing self-care as “self-cherishing.” How do we cherish ourselves? “What would it mean to self-cherish?” Erlene’s goal is to make self-care/self-cherishing accessible in ways that allows readers to “go deeper” in whatever way this needs to look for each individual.
Erlene noted that our strong desire to help makes it tempting to put up with toxic work environments and low pay because “I’m in it for the outcome, not the income.” She agreed with me that this is a terrible expression that we need to expel from our language. She pointed out that this concept is pervasive in professions that are predominantly staffed by women. “You’re supposed to be so selfless,” and you risk being labeled difficult to work with if you push back against this idea. She re-framed the idea that self-care is selfish as “Self-care is self-full.” “How do I fill myself?”
Erlene has “a whole litany of books” she is working on, as well as articles and future blog posts. Erlene also frequently edits pieces and co-authors with colleagues in a shared mission to promote self-care as an essential aspect of competent and sustainable professional practice. Keep an eye out for her publications in the future.
I encourage all helping providers to check out Erlene’s blog and book to foster your own self-care and figure out what this looks like for you. You deserve to be self-full, not just because you are a helper, but because you are you. I’ll leave you with one last thought from Erlene: “The goal is to get to the point where self-care is a lifestyle, not a luxury.”