Supporting Yourself in a Support Role

by Carl Conner & Sarah Norek

Burnout is real, and many people are really feeling it right now, among other things. We’re experiencing a global pandemic, large-scale political unrest, the increased visibility of racialized violence and injustice, and other factors that impact our mental and physical well-being. Many are navigating decision fatigue, screen fatigue, fatigue in general. While we don’t want to discount anyone’s positive experiences over the past several years, we do want to acknowledge that it has been a challenging time, and continues to be so. With this in mind, it’s important to give space to the process of challenge and how we proceed through it. Talking about and connecting through difficult times can help us better support others and find new ways to support ourselves.

At the end of 2021, we (Carl & Sarah) connected remotely with campus colleagues to discuss the question of how folks in support roles support themselves, while also providing support to all who rely on them. We met with Abbey Martin (Program Coordinator, Coast to Forest), Bonnie Hemrick (Assistant Director of Mental Health Promotion & Interim Director of Prevention & Wellness) and Tessie Webster-Henry (Mental Health Promotion Coordinator). Following, we want to share themes that rose to the surface of the discussion.

It can be helpful and self-supportive to adjust (and readjust) our expectations.

Many of us have a long list of tasks and we find our plates heaped full. Abbey spoke about intentionally making her life smaller and appreciating the small wins, like getting up and out of bed, getting to work, taking care of the people in her life who need taking care of, etc.  Tessie resonated with expectation adjustment and mentioned being realistic about what we can do in the moment, as well as not comparing ourselves to our pre-pandemic selves. Abbey shared that part of what she needs in her support system is someone who can tell her that she doesn’t need to accomplish everything all at once; some tasks can happen on a different day.

We’re human, we make mistakes, and we can give ourselves grace.

As we discussed adjusting expectations, Abbey reminded us to have grace for ourselves and others as we make these changes. Bonnie shared the observation that it’s hard to let go of that impulse to make everyone happy, which brought up the topic of perfectionism and failure. As Abbey pointed out, we live in a culture of comparison, bombarded by stories of exceptional people, which can cause us to feel like we’re not doing or being enough. Tessie reflected on the fact that we can’t be great at everything every day, so she likes to ask herself (as inspired by a friend), “What am I going to fail at today?” We can give ourselves the permission to fail and even welcome failure as a way to take care of ourselves too.

Finding and making connection with others matters. A lot.

Tessie spoke to the need for balance. On a college campus, part of our job is to create, innovate, and support. At the same time, building relationships, taking care of each other, and sharing space and time together are such important parts of our work as well. As Tessie said: “Student Affairs is about being present too.” Bonnie talked about how important her support network is; it helps her process what she’s experiencing, how she’s providing support to folks, what’s impacting her, and what she’s carrying. Tessie brought up the concept of always choosing and acting with kindness.  We don’t know what the people in front of us may have been through or what they’re arriving to a meeting having just experienced, so we must center kindness and care as we connect with others.

During closing remarks, Bonnie spoke to how communities are disproportionately impacted throughout all of this. All people – even members of privileged communities – are experiencing hardship. When we factor in identification with one or more marginalized identities on top of that hardship, we see a compounded impact on physical and mental well-being.

The value of connecting, normalizing, and validating each other’s experiences

One of the things that we heard reflected by Abbey, Bonnie and Tessie, and that we both felt too, even as largely silent facilitators, was just how healing and empowering the conversation was. Our three “interviewees” were connecting, normalizing, and validating each other’s experiences.  We were all hearing each other and recognizing similar experiences, while also taking away insights and perspectives from our colleagues. As facilitators, we came away feeling newly grounded and like we’d encountered a breath of fresh air.

A few strategies we wanted to be sure to share:

  • Tessie offered the practice of getting an index card, noting appointments, and then identifying 2 to 3 things that can be accomplished that day, as a way to help with expectations and make manageable workloads for ourselves.
  • Abbey offered the strategy of washing hands between work and home, or work and whatever else, as a way to cue ourselves that we’re leaving this potentially difficult space and entering a new one.
  • Asking ourselves at the start of the day, what can I fail at today?

How do you take care of yourself while in a support role? How are you taking care of yourself so you can continue to support others? We’d love to hear from you!

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