Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Christianity

Out of Balance: Why I Hesitate to Practice and Teach "Self-Care"

Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Christianity

Out of Balance: Why I Hesitate to Practice and Teach "Self-Care"

Article excerpt

Toward the back of my Community Psychology classroom, a student raised his hand. We had been discussing a rationale for involving psychologists, particularly Christian psychologists, in efforts to address poverty and injustice. "Dr. Canning? Is it possible to make an impact in the world without making tremendous personal sacrifices like time with family or even in some cases your own life? Is it possible to do these things and have a balanced or healthy life?" The clinical psychology doctoral student, John Koh, had been reading stories about Christians whose lives were making a global impact. He was sobered by the strong note of sustained personal sacrifice sounding throughout these accounts. But he was also confused. In the course of his training, John was being advised by supervisors and other experienced clinicians to try to stay balanced in his life and to be sure to take care of himself as he learned how to professionally care for others. The notions of balance and self-care seemed important to him, and to many of us in the room. But they were difficult to reconcile with sacrificial personal narratives, values in the discipline we were studying, and biblical emphases on service, sacrifice and dying to self we espoused. How was he to make sense of all this?

As I am sure you have guessed by now, I had no good answer for John. What I did have was an assurance of the question's importance. It reflected a tension I had observed in other students throughout the years. A trainee wonders how to respond to a supervisor who has asked them to take on an additional assessment on top of an already demanding schedule. Another believes the commitment they have taken on with me and with others is no longer in their best interest. A recent graduate wants to hear how I balance family, work and personal obligations. What do I tell these students in the early years of their formation as helping professionals? Or for that matter, what do I tell myself? Not a week (nor a day?) goes by without the need to make choices involving the tension among my many roles (wife, mother, daughter, friend, colleague, practitioner, instructor, consultant, researcher, to name a few) and spheres of life (family, work, congregation, neighborhood, etc.). Navigating this complex web of contexts and connections, of obligations and opportunities that is my life, regularly brings me to a set of intersections: the professional crosses the personal, the needs and desires of others clash with my own, a craving for meaningful labor meets a yearning to rest, and the longing to give encounters a wish to conserve what I have.

Over the years, the guideposts I have encountered along this challenging landscape have frequently involved recommendations toward "self-care" and "balance". In both secular and religious contexts, in conversation and in the literature, the message is clear. In order to cope with vocational demands and avoid burnout, I must (a) learn to "take care of myself" and (b) work toward "balance" ? typically a balance between work and the rest of life, and between the needs of others and the needs of self.

As my title implies, I have some misgivings about these recommendations. In the rest of this essay, I want to explain these misgivings and present some metaphors, arising out of my personal experience and scholarly activity, which draw me more compellingly as a Christian and care giving professional.

Self-Care: Contributions, Complications and Cautions

It will not be difficult for most of us to think of someone in either a professional or personal realm (or to remember ourselves at one time or another) whose life illustrates the very antithesis of wellness. We recognize that something is amiss. And we are rightly concerned about the erosions of professional competence, personal well-being and relationships that ensue when physical, psychological, social and spiritual limitations are habitually ignored or disregarded. Still, I find myself hesitant to fully embrace and apply the concepts of balance and self-care as I have often heard them employed. …

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