Higher Education & Student Affairs

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Student Affairs, Self-Care, and Success by Toni Nogalski

Toni Nogalski, Graduate Apprentice for the Counseling Center

At its worst, self-care is like avocado toast: a concept vaguely associated with Millennials whose merits are best left to be debated in the blogosphere.   At its best, the term proliferates professional circles as a reminder that workers are not automatons, but people, with needs that can be obscured by the mounting, daily stressors of life.  Self-care is often talked about, yet infrequently “achieved” in part because the term is amorphous, highly individualized, and difficult to practice consistently.  

Before graduate school, I discounted self-care because the term is used so superficially.  At the time, I had a challenging, yet manageable job where my nights and weekends were my own time.  Even in times of job-related stress, I took comfort in knowing the work day would end and I could retreat behind the rigid boundaries between my personal and professional life.  With ample free time to devote to whatever, I felt capable and in control of my immediate future.  My life was not difficult, which made it hard for me to appreciate why others’ professional performance might be impacted by how they were feeling (outside of illness, injury, disability, or traumatic event).    

It took me entering student affairs to understand how narrow and unnuanced my views were as well as how they were informed by my own tremendous privileges.  For better or worse, this is a field that is acutely self-aware and self-referential.  This makes sense considering how much developmental theory underpins the programming we create for emerging adults to encourage reflection and personal growth.  As if by osmosis, self-discovery bleeds into how this profession seeks to develop its staff as well.  In many ways, it is an environment that may sympathize the value of self-care, even if only to play lip service to it. 

Even in this sympathetic environment, there is a hidden pitfall endemic to student affairs that practitioners should be sensitive to, for the sake of themselves as well as the students they serve.  The desire to do good and the desire to do well can become two competing impulses.  Many student affairs practitioners hold the two desires in tandem, which can become maladaptive without the practice of self-care.  Most of us do this work because we want to help people.  For whatever reason, student affairs also attracts high-achieving people who want to help people so well that they feel personally satisfied for their part in it.  Much of the time, this is fine. 

However, when the desire to care for others meets a need to be perceived as successful, it can become expedient to sacrifice yourself as a means to get the job done.  Ultimately, the sole variable we control is the effort we put into something, so it is understandable that we think funneling more of our precious time and energy into a particular project will net better results.  This can be exacerbated in graduate school when the rhythm of the semester dictates deadlines that exist outside of the scope of apprenticeship responsibilities.  There are also seemingly endless opportunities to get involved in new experiences.  These diversions, while fascinating and rewarding ventures in their own right, are nevertheless demands on increasingly tight schedules.  Paradoxically, the impulse to sacrifice personal comfort for the sake of others can reach a threshold where it is no longer possible to do good or well.   The practice of self-care thus seeks to ensure that threshold is not met.     

If left unchecked, the cult of busy-ness can impede what it means to be a person.  Without time for contemplation and quiet, the activities with which we fill our lives can leave the soul subdivided.  It does not help that those activities and tasks may be empirically “achieved,” whereas self-care is a continuous process that must be revisited continually over the course of a lifespan.  It is important to understand this and combat it with disciplined self-awareness.   

Perhaps the value of self-care is as self-evident as I once thought.  Maybe it is obvious to say that people are ultimately responsible for maintaining their physical and emotional health.  That does not mean that people actually take care of themselves.  At the end of the day, a gentle reminder to slow down, check in, and reflect will be more helpful than maintaining a frenetic pace and chasing success for its own sake.

megan_michener • October 16, 2017

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