Oren Jay Sofer

Self Care: A Balm Against Burnout

It’s Mother’s Day, a time to appreciate moms around the world and to honor the beautiful human qualities embodied in motherhood: nurturing, compassion, generosity, to name just a few. Looking back on my own childhood, I’ve often marveled at how much time, energy, and love my mother gave—especially in those small, daily acts of care.

Whether you’re a parent or not, whether your mom is near or far, we can also use this opportunity to reflect on these qualities and to bring them into our life more. If you work in a helping profession—as a teacher, counselor, or therapist, nurse or chaplain—you know the value of empathy and compassion. It’s often a main reason for choosing this career in the first place!

Helping others can be so rewarding, yet so many of us burn out. Whether it’s the frustration of a working in dysfunctional system, the stress of overcrowded classrooms, the pressure of quotas or test scores, low pay or lack of supplies, we can find ourselves stretched thin with nothing left to give after just a few years. High attrition rates are one of the main challenges in education today.

How can we protect ourselves against burnout? In our aspiration to give we may forget the simple truth that you can’t pour from an empty cup. To support others in a sustainable way, we too need support our own well-being.

So on this Mother’s Day, I’d like to share some suggestions on how we can turn our attention to replenishing our own reserves. When we feel nourished, we have more to share with others. So if you’re in it for the long haul, make yourself the first recipient of your love and care.

  1. Eat well, sleep more, and exercise.
    The foundation of self-care comes down to the basics: are we getting enough sleep? Eating healthy? Are we moving our body enough? Find small, simple ways to maximize rest, eat healthy, and move.
  2. Unplug for an afternoon . . . or more.
    Many of us spend hours on digital devices throughout the day—we’re on a computer at work, looking at our phone between things, and perhaps even watching a screen in the evening. Do a “digital detox.” Once a week, unplug completely for a few hours: for a morning, afternoon, or an entire day if you can.
  3. Get outside.
    Modern life has many of us cooped up indoors – glued to a screen, standing in front of the classroom. Fresh air and natural light do wonders for the heart and mind. An hour in the park or a trip to the nearest forest can wash away stress and renew your spirits.
  4. Play.
    That’s right, goofing around not only reduces stress it can increase our creativity and boost our health. Pleasure and play can help release endorphins, which have a range of positive health benefits.
  5. Do nothing.
    When was the last time you felt bored? If it was more than a month ago, chances are you don’t have enough downtime in your life. If I don’t schedule time off, it just doesn’t happen. Block off unstructured time in your calendar. Like letting a field lay fallow for a season, downtime can help rejuvenate us.
  6. Build community; ask for help.
    Western culture idealizes the image of the lone hero / heroine. The myth of self-sufficiency in our hyper-individualistic culture simply goes against reality. We are by nature interdependent on the environment and one another to meet our basic needs. Spend time with friends or colleagues. Challenge assumptions that you have to do it all on your own, and be humble enough to ask for help. (And if someone says “no,” try not to take it personally; they may be practicing #7!)
  7. Learn to say “no” (in a loving way).
    When we have the skills and capacities to help others it can be challenging to set a limit and say no. If we say yes to every request, there’s little time and energy left for the things that bring us joy. Here are a few ways to say no lovingly: “I’d like to say yes, and I’m disappointed to say no.” Or, “I don’t see how I can do this without giving up something else that’s really important to me.” Or simply, “I love you, and no.”
  8. Check the “should’s” and “have to’s”.
    Have you ever listened closely to the internal narration? Chances are a good chunk of the monologue is about things you “should” do: “I have to call her back… Need to get that done… Really should finish that today…” The more blindly we obey those commands, the more quickly we burn out. Next time you find yourself thinking you should do anything, try changing the words to “I want to…” Then check to see if it’s really necessary. (If it’s important, you’ll find a good reason you actually want to do it.)
  9. Practice mindfulness.
    You didn’t really think I was going to skip this one, did you? Both mindfulness and heartfulness practice can be rejuvenating when done with the proper attitude. Think of the time you spend doing formal practice as a special gift for yourself—time with no duties or responsibilities. Emphasize a sense of ease in your body and kindness towards yourself.
  10. Make your own list:
    Choose a few of these suggestions that work for you, and use them as a starting point to make your own self-care list. Include things that take 10 minutes or a whole day. (My personal list includes things like reading poetry, playing the guitar, and doing Qi Gong.) The next time you’re feeling depleted, pull out your list. Ask yourself, what would be nourishing right now?