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'Self-care is not selfish': Milwaukee VA chaplain advocates taking time for yourself

Milwaukee VA Chaplain Robert Allen with book
Milwaukee VA Medical Center Chaplain Robert Allen has written a book on self-care titled "Self-Care: Let's Start the Conversation."

If you think taking a vacation is self-care, think again.

Instead of allowing a person to relax and recharge, vacations often bring their own share of headaches and stress – followed by the anxiety of returning to work and a slew of unread emails and pressure to jump back into the fray.

Instead, Milwaukee VA Medical Center Chaplain Robert Allen says people need to be more aware of what “fills your cup” and carve out time to do that.

“We need to identify what fills me, but also what drains me,” he said, noting that friends and family we love – as well as work we have a passion for – can also be draining. “You need to come into a balance where you are being poured into as much as you are pouring out.”

That is just one facet to Allen’s prescription for self-care, which he lays out in his book “Self-Care: Let’s Start the Conversation.”

Allen advances four pillars of self-care:

  • Retreat: “Simply get away,” he said. “Take ourselves out of whatever the chaos is so that we can finally breathe.”
  • Reflect: “Take a step back and think, ‘What worked well? What things do I need to change or adjust?'"
  • Replenish: “Whatever fills your cup in your most needful space, which means self-care is progressive; it is not stagnant. What you needed in your 20s is different than what you need in your 30s, 40s and 50s.”
  • Restore: “After you have retreated, given yourself time to reflect and refilled your cup, now you can move forward … and implement things that you’ve learned about yourself.”

“Self-care is what everybody needs to help them find their voice and what they need for themselves,” Allen said.

Finding self-care

Allen, hired in 2021 to head the hospital’s chaplaincy service, has a varied background in counseling, coaching, ministry and business. But it wasn’t until his clinical pastoral education classes that he encountered true self-care.

The assignment: Go somewhere and disconnect, with only a Bible and maybe pen and paper. So Allen went to a nearby park, where for the first 10 minutes his head was swirling, thinking about everything else he needed to do.

“And then there was this calm,” he said. “I started noticing the birds, the sky – stuff I never noticed before.

“That was probably the first time I’ve really experienced self-care, where I disconnected from all of this busyness and chaos and sat in a space where I could just be.”

Since then, he has devoted significant time to self-care and teaching others of its importance.

Allen offers self-care training seminars for companies and organizations. In those seminars, he stresses to leaders the importance of self-care for themselves and their employees, saying it needs to be more than a flyer on a bulletin board or an item in a newsletter.

“If they put more investment on this side, then they’ll have happier workers, better work-life balance and better customer satisfaction. Which means better returns on investment for companies and leaders,” he said.

Self-care for caregivers

Working in a hospital during a pandemic has only reinforced the importance of self-care, Allen said, especially for people whose passion is helping others.

He compared it to the safety briefing on airplanes when passengers are instructed to put on their oxygen masks before helping a child or family member.

“Self-care is not selfish; it’s about being able to help yourself so you can help others,” he said. “When you take better care of you, you’re able to be a better person. You’re able to be more useful to others.”

But daily life often doesn’t leave time for self-care. Family, work and other responsibilities constantly pull at us.

Allen said it is important for people to identify stressors in their lives and realize when it is time to stop and address self-care.

“Even though people have various responsibilities, I feel it's their responsibility to carve time out for themselves, whatever that may be,” he said.

“Self-care doesn't have to be the big vacation or the big getaway. It can be little things that people can do on a daily basis,” like yoga, running, or pursuing a hobby.

He sometimes asks people what they used to do in high school that brought them joy. Invariable, people will say they no longer have time for that. Allen’s response: Why not?

“What you’re saying is you haven’t thought about you enough to take care of you because you’re too busy taking care of everything and everybody else,” he said. “People can do it if they decide to take time for themselves.”

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