When I started graduate school for my MSW, I remember thinking that it was time for me to change in myriad ways. The jig was up! I could no longer continue my unhealthy or self-sabotaging behaviors, or else everyone would find out that I was a fraud. The behaviors did not change overnight, so instead I felt like I had to live a double life. I hid away my deepest difficulties, but looking back I see now it was because I was not ready to face them yet. Since then, there are a few truths I have learned from working within, and quitting, the field of social work.
“Healers” are drawn into the work because of either their own healing work (that is never finished) and/or healing work that is necessary in their family and its ancestral line.
I thought this was my own dirty, little secret. When I began to work in the field, I could not find a single coworker who didn’t have some history of personal trauma and hadn’t supported someone else through an adverse experience—not one person. For most of us, this is how we came to have innate empathy and compassion. Slowly, the mask I thought I needed to wear is coming off. But this led me to the realization of the second and most impactful truth.
You can’t help someone if you don’t help yourself first.
I know, this one seems obvious. It gets drilled into our minds during any certification or educational program designed for people in helping professions, and it seems like common sense. The way this truth manifests for everyone looks completely different, dependent on personalities and your own, unique history of personal or witnessed trauma and adversity. For me, I realized one of the reasons that I felt I needed to wear a mask was because I was in denial about the help I needed. I was struggling with my mental health, substance use, and an abusive relationship that was slowly draining my entire life force. Without the mask, I knew others would see this too. They would see the areas of my life that needed healing. They would see when I neglected these areas. I had to become accountable. Again, this did not happen overnight. Slowly, I stepped out of the veil of denial and am learning to make choices that are healthy for my life and journey as a healer. This led me to the final truth I will share here. This next truth brings me solace every day.
Everybody’s healing journey looks different and will never be over.
One of the things I struggle with is projecting my own experience onto others and confusing this for my capacity for empathy. Sometimes as a social worker, I think that I know what a client should do because I’ve been there before, or I’ve been close to someone who has. I am learning to respect that each person has their own journey, and they have the autonomy to make choices that may appear to not even support their healing. Someone’s path may seem nonsensical to an onlooker, but be perfectly and divinely aligned for them. My job is not to judge or shame them, but to support them in whatever choices they do make, especially any healthy choices. My job is also to have compassion and to release responsibility when I do not agree with their choices. It is also not my responsibility to stay until the journey is “over” or “complete” because it will never be so.
I am weary when people talk about traumatic pasts and dismiss it saying they are “over” it. I think I learned this truth by first practicing it on myself. I know, what a shocker! We’re back to that second truth again. I helped myself by releasing expectations of healing perfection or completion, and so naturally I now am able to help others this way as well.
My healing journey looks a little topsy-turvy. I left my career as a social worker only a year after graduate school because I had already burned out. I didn’t know if I would go back. All I knew was that I couldn’t do it anymore. I had neglected my own needs and healing in favor of avoidance that looked like working overtime and traveling to see family members I had left behind to take the social work job. I focused on everyone else’s healing besides my own.
I became certified to teach yoga in plans to help others heal in a different way, but the training helped me actually focus on myself more than I expected. I began to apply all these self-care theories and tools. My yoga teacher training taught me skills beyond psychotherapy and journaling that led me to have self-awareness and feel when my needs are not being met. It taught me to meet my own needs and to give myself first, and then to others, what I want to be given. Through this I am learning when I need to take breaks, how to maintain healthier lifestyle choices (including relationships) and ultimately this is teaching me how to prevent burnout.
Through writing this I am reminded how far I have come in a short amount of time, and it humbles me to remember I am not done healing yet and never will be. The third truth is what keeps me grounded in my own healing and has allowed me to remember that I can be an authentic healer while also healing myself. If I do not model to others this type of commitment to myself, I am not teaching others how to care for themselves either. As healers, we cannot be the crutch for someone else. We can only support them in their journey, realizing that and experiencing how whatever healing they need to do can come from within.