SELF-CARE AND SELF-COMPASSION
Social work students tend to be caring individuals who are already engaging in a countercultural activity by choosing to become social workers; they are seeking to make a life out of the virtue of community care in a culture that heavily resists such an idea (H. Larkin, personal communication). Even more derided than community care, however, is the idea of self-care: “Self-care in our culture has come to seem selfish, egoistic, a process of withdrawal, antithetical to good service” (Barzebat & Bush, 2014, p. 49). In addition, much of the self-care that does exist in the profession focuses on cognitive-behavioral approaches to managing stress, mirroring the “predominant view of conceptual knowing within social work education” (McGarrigle & Walsh, 2011, pp. 214-215). Furthermore, with the aforementioned value of productivity and efficiency, self-care can be viewed as too time-consuming or requiring too much effort.
Although social workers may have a tremendous abundance of compassion toward others, like many people, they tend to have challenges with regard to cultivating compassion toward themselves (Neff, 2012). Self-judgment and the tendency toward self-domination, alongside feelings of guilt, shame, and low selfworth, are commonly disclosed feelings of our social work students when they are given the opportunity to engage in deep self-inquiry. In this light, self-care must begin and end with self-compassion. Indeed, high levels of self-compassion are associated with greater levels of emotional well-being, physical health, and interpersonal functioning (Neff, 2012). Furthermore, self-compassion exercises have been shown to have positive effects on the functioning and well-being of therapists (Germer, 2012). According to spiritual teacher Phillip Moffitt, “the act of caring is the first true step in the power to heal” (as cited in Koopsen & Young, 2009, p. 1).
Self-compassion can be considered as honestly observing and exploring our behaviors and inner world with kindness, especially in relation to the most vulnerable parts of us. Thus, holding a compassionate container for ourselves is the beginning and ending point of mindfulness of our own experiences, and this compassionate presence prepares the ground for the ability to be more deeply present for the suffering of others. In my (LP) Yoga, Mindfulness and Social Work class, my students and I practiced a loving-kindness meditation, known as metta in the Buddhist tradition from which it originates, toward ourselves. Bringing our attention to our heart and to the feeling of having been loved unconditionally by someone in the past, we stated silently to ourselves, “May I be happy, may I be well. May I be free from fear and suffering.” By engaging in the practice of sending well wishes to ourselves, we offer students a lifelong tool that they can use to strengthen their sense of self-compassion and self-care, which can nurture and sustain their abilities to engage in transformative social work practice.