How Gardening Helped My Compassion Fatigue and Step Up My Self Care

Author:  Jane Rolander, LCSW 

When you’re in graduate school for clinical social work or counseling, you hear the words “burnout” and “compassion fatigue” a lot. Like, a lot. You learn about the symptoms, the warning signs, and how to prevent it. You hear horror stories of clinicians losing their minds and their license due to burnout. You sit there and think “that won’t be me.” It’s not because you don’t think it won’t happen to you, but you’re convinced you will pick up on the warning signs and make taking care of yourself a priority. Also, you will have excellent supervision to check yourself before you wreck yourself.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work like that. What people don’t tell you is that, at some point the things that WERE helping you take care of yourself and prevent burn out, might stop working and you might not even realize it.

I’ll use myself as an example. My standard self-care activities have been painting my nails, watching Netflix, spending time with my husband and our dog, coloring (I’m not ashamed), and taking trips to the beach when I can. I take a week vacation every summer. I stay connected with my friends. I don’t bring my work home at night or on the weekends. I eat healthy, drink a lot of water, and get at least 6 hours of sleep a night.

Sounds good on paper right? I thought so too.

But then the signs of burnout started creeping up, slowly, over a period of a few years. I was showing up late to work. I was tired all the time. My chronic migraines started becoming more frequent and more intense. When I was at work I started forgetting things, I became increasingly frustrated with clients, I found myself becoming jaded to their problems and struggled to have empathy or problem solve. But I continued to maintain that I was taking care of myself, that I was fine, and attributed all these signs to other things.

I didn’t set out to find new self-care activities, I thought I had that under control. I did get tired of having to purchase basil at the grocery store, only to have it wilt and go bad within 3 days of buying it. I decided that ultimately it would be easier, more convenient, and cheaper for me to grow my own. So that’s what I did.

What I discovered along the way was that I liked gardening. I liked having my hands in the dirt and the smell of plants. I liked seeing something grow because of my care. I started to look forward to coming home every day to check on my plant, see how it was doing, and give it water. I liked figuring out the mysteries of what it needed to thrive. And I really enjoyed having fresh basil whenever I wanted and being able to say “I grew that myself.”

So I decided to try and grow other things. I started with herbs in pots on my back patio. Then moved to tomatoes. Then added lettuce and peppers. I started bringing plants into work too. It started with a cactus, and my collection grew from there. Before I knew it, I had an entire garden on my apartment balcony and my office windowsill was full of plants. They became points of conversation with my clients and coworkers.

Having plants at work helped me stay connected with nature and remind me that there was life outside of work. They became a metaphor for personal growth and new life. They gave me something to do and look forward to on even the worst work days. I started feeling more peaceful at work and got back to forming authentic connections with clients. It was at this point that I realized what I was doing before to take care of myself wasn’t working and that I had accidentally (and luckily) stumbled upon something that was working. So I decided to keep it going.

I started planning my garden around the seasons so that I would have something growing year-round. When someone was giving away a plant because they were killing it, I adopted it. I spent my free time on gardening blogs teaching myself how to take care of different plants and troubleshooting problems in my garden. I also started composting using a worm bin on my apartment balcony. Yes, that’s right, I started saving my food scraps and feeding it to my pet worms so that I could have fertilizer for my plants and it was awesome.

Once I realized I had this new thing that I really liked and helped me feel less burnt out, I set out to find other things that would make me feel this way. I tried yoga and liked it so much I bought a membership to a studio. I started teaching myself to cook at home more (jury is still out on this one).

Of course, I continued to grow my garden. What I learned from this experience is that sometimes we come across things that help us in unexpected ways, even when we didn’t realize we needed them. It’s important to be open to new experiences as they come to us, and I now make a conscious effort to find alternative avenues of self-care that might seem weird or like extra work, and it’s paying off.

I feel great most of the time. It’s important that we expand our view of self-care beyond the typical Netflix binges and time at the spa. Your self-care routine will likely look different from everyone else’s, and that’s cool. Try new things, plant some seeds, and watch them grow.

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