3 Must-Read Books About Self-Care and Personal Growth
For anyone who works in education or the helping professions, I’d like to share with you three books that I’ve found particularly helpful in dealing with stress, burnout, and vicarious trauma, and in moving toward a life that’s both more satisfying and more effective in serving others.
by Françoise Mathieu
I’m sure you’ll agree with Françoise Mathieu that “many helpers across the various helping fields (teachers, physicians, nurses, social workers, prison therapists, judges, police officers, chaplains, etc.) are showing clear signs of compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma.” (p. 33)
The Compassion Fatigue Workbook addresses the biggest challenges of ‘helpers,’ including:
- Impossible Workloads: “I am trying to do the work of two people. When I moved into this position, I replaced a full-time counselor. I also replaced [… the] overseer for the counseling center. […] It is impossible for me to successfully handle the responsibilities of both positions and to do them both well.” (p. 3 quoting the director of a women’s counseling center)
- Difficult Colleagues: “Of course, there are difficult and stressful jobs in any field […] But the helping fields have the added burden of being exposed to traumatic stories, individuals in distress, and a huge volume of work as a matter of course […] Many of us have to work with challenging (even at times toxic) colleagues. I invite you to reframe this negativity and think of it as an organizational form of compassion fatigue.” (p. 74)
- Exposure to Stress and Trauma (among both front-line workers and support staff): “Receptionists, custodians, court reporters, administrative assistants—all are too often the invisible recipients for a great deal of traumatic material. […] We often treat them like the local bartender, unloading the stresses and complaints of our days on them […] They are often the first point of contact for irate callers and clients walking into our busy clinics, or for angry parents phoning the school […] They deserve to receive basic training on the impact of compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma on their own world view and well-being.” (p. 39)
The purpose of the book isn’t to dwell on the challenges, but to help readers move from compassion fatigue to compassion satisfaction, reconnecting to our callings and finding meaning through serving others in a sustainable way.
[Note: Since publication of The Compassion Fatigue Workbook, Françoise Mathieu now prefers using the term ‘empathic strain’ or ‘empathic distress.’ (See “Why It Is Time to Stop Using ‘Compassion Fatigue.’”)]
by Rev. Fred Lehr
While Rev. Lehr wrote this book for clergy, he describes challenges common to all of the helping professions:
- Pushing Ourselves Too Hard: “In my twenty-four years of parish ministry […] At no time could I ever declare, ‘This is enough.’ I had no concept of ‘enough.’ Every year had to be better than the year before.” (p. 5)
- Unrealistic Expectations from Others: “Over time, I came to recognize that what got clergy rewarded in their ministries was also the very thing that was wrecking their personal, spiritual, and family lives. After all, congregations love those who just can’t say ‘no.’ Congregations applaud those who never take a day off, who ‘labor for the Lord’ endlessly.” (p. 3)
- Feeling Taken for Granted: “At about 4:00 a.m. one Sunday I was notified that our church building was on fire […] for hours I crawled in and out of that building on my hands and knees to rescue the archives that went back over two hundred years, even though I nearly collapsed several times from the smoke […] Congregants made speech after speech thanking the many firefighters […] not one word was said about ‘their pastor’ who had risked his life for the congregation […] such behavior was merely expected. And I was more than willing to sacrifice myself to hear the words of thanks, which never came.” (p. 38)
- Suppressing Negative Feelings: “How can we totally deny ourselves and live the selfless life we have been taught, unless we turn off our feelings? Easy: Only ‘acceptable’ feelings can be felt. […] Yet such distortion of feelings can create resentment, anger, and even depression.” (p. 28)
- Somatizing Stress and Resentment: “Often anger is not readily admitted even to oneself. It can be experienced through physical symptoms like muscle tension, high blood pressure, stomach aches, insomnia or excessive sleeping.” (p. 40-41)
- Negative Impact on Family: “What many so-called successful clergy do—they simply endure. They and their families pay the price.” (p. 39)
Rev. Lehr urges clergy (and by extension, anyone in the helping professions) to rethink:
“how we treat ourselves as well as our spouses and families […] I am not talking about sacrificing ministry for the sake of saving oneself. It is possible to engage in productive ministry while maintaining healthy boundaries of self-care and family/spouse devotion.” (p. 39)
[Note: Page numbers are from the classic 2005 edition; there’s a new version published in 2022 called Clergy Burnout: Surviving in Turbulent Times.]
by Liz Carver and Josh Green
According to the Enneagram system, there are nine basic personality types, each of which ranges from ‘integration’ to ‘disintegration,’ a spectrum from ideal to toxic ways of being in the world. The point of the Enneagram isn’t just to label each type but to engage in a process of personal growth by recognizing the challenges and strengths of our own tendencies, while empathizing with others whose perspectives may be quite different from ours.
Carver and Green describe the nine types as follows:
- ONEs are “focused, hardworking, precise, detail-oriented people who operate from a strong sense of personal ethics.” (p. 26) Their biggest challenge is letting go of perfectionism and silencing their Inner Critic.
- TWOs are dedicated to helping those around them. They need to be needed, and their biggest challenges are acknowledging their own needs and developing healthy boundaries.
- THREEs are “hardworking, assertive, task-oriented” people who are focused on achievement. (p. 58) It can be hard for them to take off their ‘masks’ and reveal their flaws and vulnerability.
- FOURs “want to be their unique self and express this to the world.” (p. 75) They tend to feel misunderstood by others, and can struggle with shame and emotional reactivity.
- FIVEs are “analytical, focused, perceptive […] individuals who spend a lot of time in their heads.” (p. 90) They may withdraw too much from relationships and lose touch with their own emotions.
- SIXes “are the people who listen to every word of the flight attendant’s safety procedures […] and have snacks in case you get hungry, medicine in case you feel sick, and a charger in case your phone dies.” (p. 104) They can be so focused on whatever might possibly go wrong that they struggle with analysis paralysis and what Carver and Green call “pre-traumatic stress,” replaying disastrous scenarios that might happen in the future. (For the record, I’m a type Six and I definitely struggle with this type of second-third-fourth-fifth-guessing and severe anxiety.)
- SEVENs are “the life of the party.” (p.122) They “want to enjoy life, try new things, and avoid boredom. […] Sometimes, SEVENs will work so hard to avoid pain and fill their endless hunger for thrills that they will seek to fill the void inside with numbing behaviors” or overindulgence. (p. 123)
- EIGHTs are “strong, assertive, full of energy, honest, blunt, resourceful, and intense. […] They are often assumed to be leaders and tend to assume leadership upon themselves.” (p. 136) They can struggle with recognizing their own limits and vulnerability.
- NINEs can easily be overlooked or taken for granted by other people because they try so hard to avoid conflict or tension. Their biggest challenge is to assert themselves and express their own opinions and needs.
There’s been a proliferation of resources on the Enneagram in recent years. What’s Your Enneatype? is useful either as an introduction or to further your understanding. There are clear descriptions of each type, along with specific self-care tips and guidance for communicating with other people (including your family and your students, patients, or clients) who may react to stress in ways you find annoying or confusing.
I hope you find these perspectives as useful as I do. The following posts have more book recommendations for the helping professions: