Physician and author Walker Percy in one of his novels poses the question: "What if you missed your life like a person misses a train?" Unfortunately, in today's stressful world with multi-tasking being the norm of the day, this is so easy to do. Each of us has a range of resilience (the ability to meet, learn from, and not be crushed by the challenges and stresses of life). This range Is formed by heredity, early life experiences, current knowledge and the level of motivation to meet life's challenges and enjoy each day to the fullest-no matter what happens!
One of the key ways used by helping and healing professions to maximize one's resiliency range is through the design and use of a self-care protocol or program. Many of us feel we have to postpone the joys of life until we have the time. We will do all the things to make us happy when we finish school, get a promotion, have children, they get settled, we retire. The reality is: we will never have the time and space unless we make it now. Designing and following a practical, realistic, and creative self-care protocol helps you do this so life can begin now rather than at some vague point in the distance that may always somehow be beyond your reach.
Sometimes it takes a rude awakening for us to realize how far we have drifted from a balanced life. I certainly can vouch for this personally because of a conversation a number of years ago with a very close friend who was in his early forties and was dying, from brain cancer. He was outrageous and we constantly teased one another. Even though he was dying, this did not stop.
He had been living in New York and I hadn't seen much of him in the years since I was the best man at his wedding. When he was hospitalized in Philadelphia to undergo experimental treatment, I visited him. When I came to visit he had already been there for almost two weeks and when I inquired about his health he shared a summary of his condition, which included loss of short-term memory. So, I said to him: "You mean you can't remember what happened yesterday?" He said: "No."
Then I smiled and said: "So, you don't remember me coming in and sitting here with you each day for five hours for the past two weeks?" He looked at me, hesitated for a second or two, grinned widely, and said...well I can't share exactly what he said...but we both had a good laugh over it.
One of the things he did surprise me with, though, was a question that really helped me put my activities in perspective. He asked: "What good things are you doing now?" As I started to launch into an obsessive (naturally well-organized) list of my recent academic and professional accomplishments, he interrupted me by saying: "No, not that stuff. I mean what really good things have you done? When have you gone fishing last? Who is in your circle of friends and what do you talk about with them? What museums have you visited lately? What good movies have you seen in the past month?" The "good things" he was speaking about the last time I saw him alive were different from the ones I in my arrogant good health thought about. Unfortunately, I have a lot of company in this regard.
There are basic elements of a self-care protocol or renewal program that most of us need in order to replenish ourselves and reinforce our resilience on an ongoing basis. It really doesn't require too much to take a step back from our work or family routine to become refreshed in order to regain perspective. Some of the basic elements might include visiting a park or hiking,
having family or friends over for dinner or evening coffee, telephoning someone you haven't spoken to in ages, or any number of things. The list can be almost endless. The important thing is to recognize the serious need to intentionally and spontaneously make room for these elements in our schedule so they represent a constant, significant portion of the time we have available each day/week/month/year.
Once we have developed and reflected upon such a list of self-care elements, how it is then used is also crucial. At this point, the challenging question that presents itself is: How do we formulate a self-care protocol that we are likely to use beneficially and regularly rather than in spurts? And so, to ensure that an ongoing systematic program is in place, we must direct a number of questions to ourselves. This is to avoid the dangers of, on the one hand, being unrealistic in developing a protocol and, on the other, of not being creative and expansive enough. Included among these preliminary questions are:
• When someone says, "self-care" what image comes to mind? What are the positive and negative aspects of this image?
• How do you balance your time alone to renew your energy, reflect on your life, and clear your thinking with the time you spend with those who challenge, support, and make you laugh?
• Self-care and self-knowledge go hand in hand. What types of activities (i.e. structured reflection at the end of a day, informal debriefing of oneself during the drive home, journaling, mentoring, therapy, spiritual guidance, reading, etc.) are you involved in which will help you develop a systematic and ongoing analysis of how you are progressing in life?
• What types of exercise (walking, the gym, swimming, exercise machine, etc.) do you enjoy and feel would be realistic for you to be involved in on a regular basis?
• Who in your circle of friends provide you with encouragement, challenge, perspective, laughter, and inspiration? How do you ensure that you have ongoing contact with them?
• The balance between work and leisure, professional time and personal time, varies from person to person. What is the ideal balance for you? What steps have you taken to ensure that this balance is kept?
• Self-care involves not getting pulled into the dramatic emotions, fears and anger that may pervade our home and work settings. What are the self-care elements that support a healthy sense of detachment?
• How do you prepare for change since it is such a natural constant part of everyone's life?
• What is the best way you can balance between stimulation and time in silence and solitude so you don't have constant stimulation on the one hand or isolation and preoccupation with self on the other?
• How do you process "unfinished business" (e.g. failures, duplicity in one's relationships, past negative events, hurts, fears, lost relationships, etc.) in your life so that you have enough energy to deal with the challenges and appreciate the joys in front of you?
• In what way do you ensure that your goals are challenging and high but not unrealistic and deflating?
• What self-care steps do you have to take because of your gender or race that others of a different race or gender don't have to do?
• How has your past experience set habits in motion that make self-care a challenge in some ways?
• What self-care steps are more important at this stage of your life than they were at earlier life stages?
• What do you already do in terms of self-care? (i.e. In each of the following areas, what have you found to be most beneficial: physical health, interactions with a circle of friends, professionally, financially, psychologically, and spiritually?)
• What is the next step you need to take in developing your self-care protocol? How do plan to bring this about?
• Are you also conscious of the need for "mini-holidays" involving a brief tea or coffee break, a short walk, playing with the children in the evening, or visiting one's friends or parents? Practicing a putt in your office or living room, shopping, casting with a fly rod in a neighborhood field?
Reflecting on questions like these periodically, and responding honestly to all of them, can improve personal resilience and self-knowledge in ways that aid in burnout prevention. They also can increase sensitivity to how we live our life in a way that enables us to both flourish personally and become more faithful and passionate professionally. Once again, the way we move through the day depends a great deal on personality style. Burnout is not necessarily from the amount of work but how we perceive it and interact with people as we do it. Some people complain that they are so busy that they don't have time to breathe. Others with the same intense schedule reflect on how happy they are that they are involved in so many challenging projects.
Some of us love exercise and thrive on it. Others are more sedentary in their existence. All of us though, want to be physically healthy. Not everyone likes outdoor activities and vacations packed with touring new sites and experiencing adventures. Some would prefer the back yard, a leisurely walk, an artist's easel, a good book or a familiar restaurant. However, all of us need time away at different points.
The differences among us are many. That is why each self-care protocol or personal renewal program, if it is to be both realistic and effective, is unique in its composition. The important point though is: we must have a self-care protocol in place that we can employ as a daily guide while being alert to creating rationalizations and excuses for not doing this. Not to have such a personal renewal program may court disaster in terms of both our personal and professional lives. It is also, at its core, an act of profound disrespect for the gift of life we have been given.
When we have true self-respect that is evidenced by a sound self-care protocol, it can also be transformative for us. It is important to recall that its benefits are not just for us. One of the greatest gifts we can share with those who are close to us is a sense of our own peace and resilience. However, we can't share what we don't have. It is as simple as that.
Dr. Robert Wicks received his doctorate in psychology from Hahnemann Medical College and Hospital in Philadelphia, is on the faculty of Loyola University Maryland and the author of BOUNCE: LIVING THE RESILIENT LIFE (Oxford) and PRAYERFULNESS: AWAKENING TO THE FULLNESS OF LIFE (Sorin Books).