It’s no secret that working in any helping profession, such as higher education, can be exhausting work. Working with a diverse student body, with all of the modern challenges that exist in our society, is emotionally draining. It is not at all uncommon to work long hours, to answer emails from home and to stay up late thinking about that last student you met with whose challenges are far greater than you could ever imagine. We pour ourselves into our work because, after all, supporting students is what we’re passionate about. But what about us? When do we advocate for ourselves? If you read my blog post on the importance of setting boundaries, you’ll remember one of the subtopics being “An empty vessel cannot fill another”. And so today, I want you to focus on yourself first before attempting to help anyone else.
It’s okay to not be okay
I am so beyond over this culture of forced or false positivity. Susan David gave a great TED Talk on the importance of what she called “emotional courage” and the dangers of “false positivity”,
…when we push aside normal emotions to embrace false positivity, we lose our capacity to develop skills to deal with the world as it is, not as we wish it to be.Susan David
This is something I often see in my students. I ask them how their semester is going as I lead them to my office. They say that everything is going well. We sit down across from each other. I look at how their semester has actually gone and see several failing grades. I tell them that it is okay to fail, that it is okay to feel sad or depressed. So why do I have such a difficult time following my own advice? If you often encounter this same conundrum, remind yourself that it is okay, important even, to recognize and accept when you are not okay.
To tell a quick personal story: I have struggled with anxiety for most of my life. I have finally reached a point where it is fairly under control but there are moments when it comes flooding back with a vengeance. I was at work on one of those occasions and ended up with a full-blown panic attack – the first I had ever experienced. In the midst of it, my coworker walked by and asked if I was okay. In that moment, I had a choice to make. I could either fake a smile and continue to suffer silently or I could admit that I was most certainly not okay and that I needed support. I chose the latter and I will always be grateful for my colleague for not only not judging me but sitting with me until I felt better.
Get a physical of your mind
Let me explain: most of us go to our primary care physician on an annual basis for a physical. We get prodded and poked a bit, they do that funny thing to your knee to check reflexes and the nurse asks a few questions. All of this takes typically an hour or so and, ideally, we walk away with a clean bill of health or a treatment plan. This is a normal part of self-care. So why don’t we follow the same procedure for our mental wellbeing? Therapy can work wonders as a preventative measure and research has shown this when used with adolescents and children (Durlak and Wells, 1998). I’ve seen a counselor on and off over the years and I have never regretted seeking out professional help. A lot of universities even offer special programming or services through HR specifically for university faculty and staff in order to promote both our physical and mental wellness. Whether it’d be special counseling services or weekly, lunch-time chair yoga sessions, do as you tell your students to and use your resources!
This is something you will read again and again on my blog because this is so incredibly important. Establishing and maintaining a work-life balance is crucial to avoiding burnout and increasing job satisfaction. Whether this means not answering emails after 5pm, scheduling admin time strategically to avoid multiple back-to-back meetings, saying no to joining yet another committee or even having a conversation with your supervisor about your workload – setting boundaries is one of the primary components of self-advocacy. And if you need more help with this particular challenge, read my blog post on it here!
Lastly, if nothing else, at least talk to someone about what you’re going through. We’re always happy to share what’s going well in our lives (in the name of false positivity) but we isolate ourselves when things are less than ideal. Even though intellectually we know others are struggling, emotionally we still believe that we should be able to handle our problems on our own. This line of thinking is toxic and counterproductive. So the next time you’re not feeling great and your coworker asks you how you’re doing, take a leap of faith and admit that not everything is sunshine and daisies. You may find that they too are not doing too great and could use someone to talk to. Opening up and being vulnerable provides the space for others to do the same. So, by helping yourself, you may just end up helping someone else.
What are your thoughts on this? Share them in the comments! Know someone who needs to read this? Send them the link to this post.
Durlak, Joseph, and A. Wells. “Evaluation of Indicated Preventive Intervention (Secondary Prevention) Mental Health Programs for Children and Adolescents.” American Journal of Community Psychology 26.5 (1998): 775-802. Web.
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