Why Everyone (Including Us) Needs to Practice Self-Aid
To care well for others we must also care well for ourselves.
Jamie Aten and Kent Annan
Helping others can be incredibly fulfilling, but it’s also challenging and taxing. Those of us in helping roles—whether volunteer or professional—often find it hard to leave behind the problems of others. Maybe we take these problems home with us, or we can’t go home at all because of where or how we’re currently serving.
To care well for others, we must care well for ourselves. In fact, studies have shown that our effectiveness as helpers decreases without self-aid. Neglect yourself, and you’ll be prone to make mistakes, struggle to be present with others, and put your own well-being at risk.
That’s why our team tries to prioritize self-aid. We’ve each pushed ourselves too far at times and experienced physical and emotional (even spiritual) fatigue, and we’ve seen the adverse effects of helping too much for too long on our families, colleagues, and loved ones.
What do we mean by “self-aid”? Here are a few practices you can use to keep things like compassion fatigue, secondary trauma, and burnout at bay:
Listen to yourself.
Pay attention to what your body and mind are telling you. Are your shoulders tense? Do your thoughts race? You might need to go for a run, take a hot bath, or get a massage. Or you might just need a vacation. Don’t forget to schedule days and weeks off on your calendar and let everyone else know that you’ll be unavailable. We like to put an autoresponder on our email messages that tells people we’ll be out of pocket for a set amount of time. Finally, make sure to daily engage with what makes you feel most alive, whether that’s listening to jazz music, playing ball with your kids, or going out for dinner with friends.
Spend time with people who understand.
Peer support is helpful because we “get it.”
Those of us who give of ourselves in work and ministry have a unique calling, and when we’re in each other’s presence, we automatically understand one another’s daily challenges. It’s not just about having people around you; it’s about surrounding yourself with the right people who bring the encouragement you need. Are there toxic or consistently negative people at work or in your church? Limit interactions with them, when possible—especially when your “tank” is empty.
Worship and pray.
Spiritual health matters. Some of our team members find that listening to worship music helps them re-center when the world closes in. Others find solace in reciting the Psalms. We often schedule time for the spiritual practice of Lectio Divina with our M.A. students, because it helps us focus on scripture in a meditative and creative way. We encourage you to find spiritual support in worship and community, whatever that looks like for you. And don’t forget that lament is also worship. Sometimes we need to grieve and process our own losses before we can help others with theirs.
Refer and resource.
When we look at ourselves through the lens of humility, which is one of the key components of Spiritual First Aid, we know when we have reached our limit. We can then refer others to the correct place for help without feeling guilty about not meeting their needs. Next, we can turn to ourselves and give ourselves grace, providing the resources we need to recover from too much work and not enough rest.
By the very nature of our work and ministry, we spend most days thinking about, teaching, researching, or helping others impacted by life’s disasters, from humanitarian crises to mass traumas. And just as we’ve encouraged you, we know it’s important for us to rest as well. Yes, we wrote this piece to remind you to take care of yourself. But we also wrote it as a reminder for ourselves. That’s why over the next couple of weeks we will be putting into practice what we’ve shared in this post by pausing anything new here on “The Better Samaritan” blog and also on the podcast. We look forward to jumping back into regular posts and episodes soon, as we keep learning alongside you how we can all do good, better.
You’re reading the Better Samaritan blog, produced by the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College. HDI provides resources like the Spiritual First Aid course for pastors and church leaders. Reach us here.
Jamie Aten, Ph.D. and Kent Annan, M.Div. are the co-founders of Spiritual First Aid. They also direct the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College.