‘I’m running nonstop.” “I can’t catch my breath.” “I feel like I’m drowning.”
I hear these statements daily as I work with child protection professionals. Clearly, this work is difficult. These professionals are exposed to secondary trauma on an ongoing basis: they see and hear the effects of abuse and neglect, and it is hard. But another reason for the widespread exhaustion and overwhelm in the field of child welfare work is systemic. Year after year, social workers are tasked with “just one more thing” that needs to be done, and the weight of this mountain has been crushing people.
This makes me think about others of us who are helpers, carers, and builders of the world we wish to see. Unitarian Universalists are often drawn to this faith because we believe that a better world is possible, and we want to join with others to make it so. Yet in these times, so many of us are feeling the weight of “just one more” senseless tragedy, “just one more” example of abuses of power, “just one more” event in the world which we feel powerless to do anything about. In our daily lives, we often feel like we are moving through the world at an unsustainable pace. Like we cannot catch our breath. Like we are drowning.
In my training and coaching work, I routinely preach the gospel of self-care as a crucial component of the resilience toolkit that child welfare professionals need in order to ward off burnout. I have long used the metaphor of the oxygen mask on an airplane as a reminder for people to take care of themselves first, so that they can continue to help others. More recently, though, I have started to wonder if there’s a problem with this metaphor. You see, the airplane oxygen masks are only available if there’s an emergency. By then, everyone on the plane is in crisis mode.
What if we had a different metaphor for reminding ourselves to practice resilience? What if, instead of airplane passengers, we were scuba divers?
Scuba divers use oxygen tanks to help them survive in the sea. They must carefully check their equipment before their expeditions, consistently monitor their remaining oxygen levels, and take action to get themselves to safety before they run out of the air they need to survive. And, crucially, scuba divers use the buddy system; they do not dive alone.
I’m working with this metaphor in my own life, and here’s what I’m making of it:
Before I engage in helping work, before I check the news or social media, I need to check my tank. What am I starting with? Is my tank nearly full, or almost depleted? What are the practices and habits that help fill my tank before I start?
While I am exposing myself to vicarious trauma, whether it is through my work or through the deluge of current events, I need to stay mindful of the extent to which my oxygen is being sapped. What are my body, heart, and spirit telling me in this moment?
When I am nearly out of reserves, I need to act. I cannot continue to be an effective helper to others if I have nothing left in my tank. Am I checking on my reserves soon enough? Do I have enough in my tank to get myself to safety? When I have emerged from the depths, what do I need to refill my tank?
Who are my buddies? Who has the capacity to dive alongside me and support me when I’m in trouble? Who can dive with me and share the beauty of the world I am exploring? With whom can I connect after the dive, to debrief and learn from the experience?
There is one last thing about this scuba metaphor that I prefer to the one about the airplane oxygen masks: scuba divers have agency. As metaphorical scuba divers, we can plan our actions, we can control the depths to which we dive, we can change course if need be, and we can grow more skilled through experience.
What fills your oxygen tank? When do you notice your reserves being depleted? Who are your buddies? What sustains your breath?