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Editor’s Note: this contributor has asked that their identity be kept anonymous in efforts to protect the privacy of their clients.
A few years ago, as a 23-year-old Master of Social Work, I stepped into a small South Los Angeles home at around 12:00 pm to tell a mother that her child would be removed from her custody. I walked into the house with a badge that labeled me as a “Children’s Social Worker II” for the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, whose sole responsibility was to ensure the safety of abused and neglected children.
As I walked through the door, I could see that this mother was shaking and that her heart was racing. Without saying a word, I could tell she knew I was there because her rights to nurture her child were going to be at least temporarily, maybe even permanently, revoked.
Ever since this first intense moment as a professional social worker, I realized that while doing my best to protect the families in the hands of the county, I would first and foremost have to protect my very own wellbeing. As a recent graduate with a fluctuating caseload of 40-50 abused or neglected children, I quickly began to struggle with the concept of self-care. In the beginning, there was a struggle to balance the time I spent thinking about my clients versus the time I spent thinking about my own needs. I found myself constantly working overtime in a stressful environment, not knowing when I would have time for myself. During that first year, I couldn’t help but think that the lives of my clients were so much more complicated and needed so much more nurturing than my own.
When I did take a break from work to hang out with friends or go on a date, I found my career coming up then, too. If I were meeting someone new who asked about my career, I would just say that I was a waitress or a bartender. Otherwise, accusations and questions would arise. People would say “how could you be a baby stealer?”, “you’re so noble”, or “oh my goodness, what’s the craziest story you can tell?”, all of which led to cringing responses and I would simply tell people that I loved my job and that I was too tired from the day to discuss it. And now, even as a mental health therapist, I have people asking similar questions or making similar comments, and once again I find myself having to tell people that I don’t want to talk about it. That being said, it’s also important not to keep everything bottled up, and to still have a solid support system. Using my colleagues or even my manager to discuss my daily struggles in this field has been a great solution for me.
In all my time as a social worker, and later as a mental health therapist, it’s only now that I can see how detrimental that first year of my career was. I realized that in order to keep sane, in order to protect myself and to be able to enjoy what I was doing without becoming jaded like so many people out there, that I had to establish boundaries. I had to learn to shut the door at a certain hour, even if I had just dropped a child off at the nearest emergency shelter for the night. I had to remind myself that there was only so much that I could do in that very moment and that it was time to go home. It sounds harsh, but this is the daily life of social workers and some mental health professionals, and it’s a life that you have to put on hold sometimes in order to provide best practice.
Establishing boundaries is not easy, and I know that I don’t have it all figured out—I don’t know if I ever will. But I do know that it all starts with learning to take good care of yourself. Doing what you love, having a routine, a release, sometimes having your very own therapist, and making time to nurture yourself are all part of what self-care means to me. I went from having to work until midnight because I could not let go of my work, to setting boundaries after an eight hour day. Now, every day at 5:00 pm, I shut the door at work, I turn off my work phone, and I literally shake it off. My routine has developed into dancing, seeing my own therapist (yes, sometimes therapists need to see therapists), and making sure to spend time with my loved ones.
It’s a wonderful career that I love but just like any other, it has its ups and downs, and it’s important to leave the baggage at work. Self-care does not come easy, and I’m not sure that it ever will. But I keep telling myself that I am the most important person in my life, and that without my wellbeing, my public service would not exist.