Attitudes Are Contagious—Mine Might Kill You!
Whether you’re a paid or volunteer youth worker, there can be nothing more frightening than the belief that something terrible might happen to a student you have invested time and energy in. As a substance abuse counselor, I struggle with the reality that one day someone could overdose and die regardless of how much I try to help. I often live with the frantic sense that there must have been something else I could have done.
Because you don’t know when crisis or tragedy might happen, it’s possible to become hypervigilant—always on your guard. Is today the day I get the call? Will it be a car accident? A school shooting? Suicide?
Sometimes it can feel as if you’re playing a lethal game of chess with your kids, always trying to be two moves ahead and aware of possible countermoves. This can be exhausting.
If you’re a youth worker who works with at-risk kids, you may find yourself on a constant emotional rollercoaster with no scheduled stops. In times of crisis you may set aside your own needs, and in doing so, you risk burnout and compassion fatigue. Be reassured that you can achieve balance if you’re intentional. Here are some things you can do to start now:
1) Seek supportive relationships.
This is essential in avoiding burnout. Build a network of kind and encouraging friends, family, and peers. Don’t isolate yourself in fear or shame. Seek respite in these relationships from the intensity of the situations your students are facing.
2) Develop health-conscious behaviors.
This is threefold: make sure to seek out rest, exercise, and nutrition. Get adequate sleep, avoid junk food, and take brisk walks. All three of these are important for emotional stability and to combat low energy levels.
3) Have fun.
A life overrun with doom and gloom and absent of joy is not worth having. You need recreation—it brings balance. Laughter releases endorphins. Often, those who work with at-risk kids lose their ability to laugh. Sometimes the best cure for this is a Three Stooges/I Love Lucy/Gilligan’s Island marathon.
4) Take a spiritual retreat.
It’s essential to create time for retreat. Develop the discipline, put it on your calendar, add it to your budget, and seek spiritual direction. It’s refreshing to pull away from the insanity and seek your Abba’s face in solitude or with a spiritual companion. Jesus often pulled away to connect with his Father after a busy day of ministry. He traveled across a lake, went up a mountain, or into a garden to pray. This simple act will help break you of your dependency on yourself. It will force you to reflect on whether or not you’re developing a savior complex. Ask yourself, Have I—with the best intentions—placed myself in the position of God? I have found that when my levels are the lowest, it’s because I’ve been trying to save and fix kids myself. Being God is hard work—I’m just not cut out for it.
If you expect to be in this for the long haul, you must pace yourself. It’s an intentional discipline important to cultivate. I’m thankful for the other youth workers God has placed in my life who help me find balance. They constantly remind me that I’m not God. And we laugh a lot. As a result, we have a better chance of loving and ministering to the kids in our community out of an overflow rather than a deficiency.
Chris Schaffner is a certified addictions counselor working with chemically dependent ’emerging adults’ and is also the founder of Conversations on the Fringe. CotF is an organization seeking creative and innovative ways to bridge the gap between the mental health community and those entities (particularly schools and churches) that serve youth in contemporary society.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.