Rev. Katie Stickney

A few times a month, I treat myself to breakfast at Starbucks. One such morning, I pulled up to the drive-through window and was informed by the barista that the person in front of me had paid for my order. I’d heard of people doing this before, usually with the exhortation to “pay it forward” by paying for the next person’s order, but this was the first time I had experienced it myself. I had a split second to decide—do I simply receive this gift? Or do I pay for the order of the person behind me . . .

I’ve always been a natural helper. My primary role in my family of origin was “big sister,” and every job I’ve ever held as an adult—teacher, therapist, chaplain, advocate—has been about helping. I have tended to feel much more comfortable being the one who helps and takes care than being the one who is helped and cared for.

Despite this, self-care has also been a priority for me and I have been a big proponent of it professionally. I’ve given workshops and trainings on true self-care that honors our limits and sometimes even pushes us beyond our comfort level—for example, setting my session fees high enough so that I can maintain a manageable caseload, even if it means turning some folks away. I put real effort toward eating a variety of good food, drinking enough water, getting enough sleep, attending my own counseling, getting massages, and going to the gym.

But my priority on self-care and my discomfort with being taken care of were often at odds. It’s not that there was anything wrong with the specific self-care practices I was engaging in, but there were two main issues with my overall approach to self-care.

The first is that I still struggled to ask for, and accept, help from others. To illustrate how extreme this dynamic has been for me, let me tell you about a day last fall when I stepped out of bed to find myself unable to stand up straight and barely able to walk, with stabbing pains through my lower back and hips. My first thought was, “whoa, this is new, what the heck is this?” And my second thought was that I was grateful that my wife had already left for work before I got up so that she wouldn’t have to see, or “deal with,” me in that much pain.

The second issue is that I still held onto an unhealthy and ultimately delusional fantasy of myself as “low maintenance.” I didn’t want to have needs that would require sacrifices by myself from others. I wanted self-care to be mostly easy and feel good. Massages, trips to the Korean spa, and walks in the woods are pretty easy for me to prioritize. Physical therapy, asking for help from others, and spending money on expensive back-supporting furniture are not.

But during this new experience of debilitating back pain, I no longer had a choice. No matter how much I wanted to be “low maintenance,” nor how much I doubted my worthiness of receiving care, my body could not just “get on” without it. During the worst weeks, I had to let my wife take up a lot of the slack on household management responsibilities, cancel some of my clients, and take a week off from caring for my 6-month-old niece on Wednesdays.

But back to that split-second moment at the drive-through window at Starbucks. Something in me said, “just receive this.” So after I said, “Oh wow, how nice of them!” I did not follow up with “let me pay for the person behind me.” I decided to lovingly say “no” to the part of me that demanded that because I had received something, I now owed something, and to find out what it would feel like in my body to simply accept this form of grace.

As I pulled out of the drive-through, I checked in with my body. There was a warmth radiating from my chest outward to my whole body. My muscles felt relaxed and energized. I felt emotions of gratitude, peace, and joy. Somewhat surprisingly, I found myself weeping.

This experience of disabling pain taught me a lesson in hindsight. I’d been experiencing a moderate level of lower back pain for months prior to this happening, but I ignored what my body was trying to tell me. If I’d listened to my body earlier and actually taken steps to get what I needed, might I have avoided the worst of the pain?

There are so many things that can get in the way of real self-care. Most of us don’t have nearly enough time, money, or energy to do everything that we would like to do and that is required of us. But while logistical challenges are real, the biggest barrier is often deeper than that. It’s in our beliefs about ourselves, about how much we matter, and about our worthiness of care. These beliefs often make it feel quite scary and vulnerable to ask for and receive help, but there can be a tremendous gift in taking that risk anyway.

All the people who were inconvenienced by my condition were kind and compassionate toward me. The physical therapy I finally began put me on track to getting better. And while we did have to budget carefully, neither the new bed we purchased for our home nor the new chair I purchased for my office broke the bank. When I let my pain teach me how to take the risk of asking for and receiving help, I discovered that there was compassion, grace, and ultimately space for me to be human. And somewhat to my surprise, I found that that feels a lot better than just not needing help and doing everything on my own.

Rev. Katie Stickney is an ordained Deacon in The United Methodist Church and a Licensed Mental Health Counselor Associate in the State of Washington. She provides sliding scale individuals and couples pastoral psychotherapy. Her specializations include grief and loss, trauma, recovery, depression and anxiety, sexuality and gender, and how spirituality relates to holistic health.

Clergy Wellness Workshop – Compassion Fatigue

July 16, 1-3 p.m. (Register by July 12) | ZOOM Webinar | $20

For many of us, this is a particularly difficult time to be a United Methodist clergy person. Even in the best of times, the work of ministry is inherently challenging and demanding. On top of that, we find ourselves in the midst of fracture, pain, harm, and uncertainty within our denomination and more broadly in our society. It is not uncommon for clergy persons to go through periods of exhaustion or burnout, and when we do, one of the most troubling symptoms can be compassion fatigue—a gradual loss of the ability to be empathic and compassionate with those we serve.

In this workshop, Katie will share what she has learned, as a mental health counselor and as someone who has experienced periods of compassion fatigue herself, how to build self-compassion alongside compassion for others so that we can tend to our own needs while also tending to the needs of those we serve.

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