Relational Self-Care

By Haley Spigner

Everyone talks about “slowing down.” I usually struggle with the line between truly needing rest and being lazy. The line between taking enough time for myself and being too overprotective of my alone time. Am I not actually pushing myself hard enough? Or is guilt driving me to push too hard? If I actually ask my soul, I know the answer. But who has time for that?

Slow down. Make space. Allow yourself to rest. To process. To grieve. Smell the roses. Self care. Blah blah blah.

This work is literally life and death some days. What is slowing down? What benefit is there?

If I actually ask my soul, I know the answer. But who has time for that?

This week I sat with several people in some pretty dire situations. And for the first time in a while, I didn’t care how long it took. It didn’t matter. I didn’t rush. As I sit this evening and unpack my week, I am thinking back on what made this week so different than the last few months.

My first time meeting Richard was kind of accidental but I ended up being his ride home from the laundromat one day. I got there early and I was essentially a stranger to him but as he meticulously folded all of his laundry, he told me all about his life and his calling and visions he’s had. He asked about how I got involved with OTN and I gave him the short, clean, edited version that had become my rehearsed answer to that question.

I saw him a handful of times after the evening at the laundromat, one of the times being when I stopped by his apartment to check and see if he had seen a doctor about some pain he had mentioned. This quick check-in ended in me taking him to the ER. As we waited he asked me if I believed in Jesus and why people like us (Lindsey and I, specifically) chose to walk into “their” world.

This was only the millionth time I had been asked some version of Why on earth did you chose this work? Richard’s version of the question came out something like “Why do you chose to be involved in something so hopeless?”

“I don’t mean to make it an ‘us’ versus ‘y’all’ kind of thing,” he said, “but sometimes if I could get out of this family, this community of those on the street, I think I would.”

I attempted to offer him my cookie cutter answer but I had already told him the how of me entering this world at the laundromat. So he just stared at me blankly, uninterested in my boring response that didn’t get to the heart of things, to the parts of me that make me human and truly explain how I ended up in the ER with him at 9:00 PM on a Wednesday night. I didn’t have a prepared answer he hadn’t already heard so we sat in silence. I thought back to classes about tuning in to clients and appropriate self-disclosure and boundaries and tried to change the subject.

But he had shared part of his heart with me… and it was at that moment I realized I was unwilling to share mine with him. But I wasn’t sure why, especially considering that all throughout my social work education, I hated talking about boundaries. I wanted relationships, not clients and case notes!

But relationship are hard. And scary. And can hurt. And I realized I had been hiding from them, and instead resorting to “transactional work”:

I bring you the paperwork. I drive you to the ER. I help you figure out the food boxes near you. I call the landlord for you. No more. I don’t let you see my soul or my hurt. I don’t tune in because I don’t know what I could possibly feel if I do and I just can’t take that risk.

At that moment the “journey together” piece of our mission just clicked. I am here to journey alongside: relational versus transactional. So I talked: outside of my script, outside of my comfort zone. I was honest with Richard that this work is hard and scary and the last few months have been pretty rough. That I mess up and I don’t always (usually) know what I’m doing and that I learn best the hard way, unfortunately. Then the doctor came in and told us what we already knew and we left to get coffee. I’m not sure if the shift that happened in my being was apparent to Richard or not, but to me, it was a turning point.

It’s cool these days to be frantically busy and bustling and overwhelmed. Not to me. I want to move slowly enough that when I leave people, they don’t have to wonder if the blur that just came through talking at a mile a minute was me or not. I want to journey with my friends. That is why I’m here after all. I think I have been so afraid of tuning in and not having enough Haley to go around. But I tuned in better this week than I have in a long while and I finished this week more full than I have been in just as long.

I have heard my coworkers say a million times that we have something to offer and to gain from our friends. I never want to miss another opportunity to gain or to offer myself.

I think self-care is less about bubble baths or having technology-free time or making space and more about actually listening to your soul. I know at my core what is too fast or too busy. My heart knows. And the people around me know. People can tell when I’m rushing through my time with them. Richard knew I wanted to hide from his real questions. And he knew when I stopped being the social worker with all of the answers and became the person that was journeying through life alongside him.