Many people who have followed me on Facebook or Instagram know that I post a lot about love…a concept that I am radically familiar and unfamiliar with. When I began my career as a social worker, I wore shoes covered in silver glitter and was full of rainbow and unicorn ideas of social justice. In an interview prior to graduation I was asked by a group of suit wearing, “official” university people, “What matters most in this world?” As I sat around the conference table my reply came in one one instant word, “Love”. I didn’t even hesitate. The response was automatic and I offered no further explanation. I have thought about that interview more times than I can count over the last year because today that answer matters more to me than ever. Throughout my career as a therapist, I have always gravitated towards the trenches. My rebellious personality likes the idea of tackling hard cases and diving into social issues that many people are uncomfortable with and choose to avoid. I have always rejected anything that flashes my privilege and says, “not my problem”. To me every single child and family that I have had the privilege to serve could have been mine and I have taken a great deal of pride in walking with them through the unimaginable. The work taught me how to stay. How to lean in. How to listen harder. It taught me the importance of the bigger picture. It taught me the importance of connections, time and allowing pain and trauma stories to have a voice. Most of all it proved over and over that we are all more alike than we are different. Our circumstances and experiences have the power to shape, protect, shame, build, empower, divide and equip us but at our core most of us share a quest for love and belonging.
But there is a flip side too. The flip side has been the reality I have been facing for the last year. The trenches can be dangerous. The longer you work there the more susceptible you become to the dark side of being a helping professional. I was still showing up and doing my best to smile and put the work first but the suit of armor I was wearing to protect myself had become so heavy I could hardly function. I was losing the connection to myself. My work remained vastly important but I was in too deep. Too much trauma, too much grief and too much energy expended on protecting and carrying my armor. And it changed me. And I did not like what I was left with at all. Love had become hard to access especially as it related to my personal life. For me when the tears stop coming and the joy is unreachable and the freedom to love, live, parent and sleep without fear is no longer present, I no longer belong to me. And you don’t have to be a social worker, therapist or first responder to know what I mean.
In my profession we talk about secondary trauma and the importance of “self care” but what are we really supposed to do in our society when the world keeps turning and a new fear bully pops out every time we turn around? Do we hide, fight, shrink, post nasty things on Facebook, blame, judge, overprotect and shame? On some level we all know that we are one step away from being “the people” who have found themselves in the midst of a crisis. And that is scary. That is where this all comes full circle for me. Because if anything impacts one of us, it impacts us all and we must return to the practice of love. And I say “practice” because it is so easy to say “love” and so hard to do it. We need to practice. And build the muscle. And accept that sometimes we just won’t feel like it. Especially when people don’t do things the way we want them to, feelings get hurt, offensive remarks are made, our values are questioned/challenged and fear creeps in. And that’s where the bigger truth lies…self-care begins with self-love. We must learn to love ourselves boldly no matter what. We have been conditioned to believe that how other people see and experience us is vastly more important than how we see and experience ourselves. We have been conditioned to believe that there are conditions on loving ourselves, “I’ll love myself when….fill in the blank”. And we hustle and perform and overcompensate and put everyone else first to earn approval, connection, significance and belonging. And so often we wind up angry, resentful, fearful and defeated. But love is right there with us. Waiting. Waiting for us to breathe her in and stop judging ourselves. To talk to ourselves in ways that build us up and inspire us. To eradicate comparison. To dig into projects and work that make us feel alive and energized. To set boundaries and limits with ourselves and others. To choose freedom. To speak up. To give ourselves permission to discover who we really are and not who we wish we were. Love starts within. And then it pours out in buckets and it is beautiful and messy and scary and imperfect and it magnifies so many little things into miracles. This kind of love takes practice and grace and forgiveness. But it’s worth it because it ushers in clarity, joy, peace and kindness. So when we ask ourselves, what we can do in the midst of so much grief, trauma and fear my most authentic answer from the trenches is the same as it was before I knew what the trenches were…start within. Love. Is. The. Answer.