A new book from Bethany Dearborn Hiser offers help for those who help others
Over the past year, coronavirus threats, isolation, racism, and political tension combined in corrosive ways, deeply affecting us mentally as well as physically. According to an October 2020 report by the American Psychological Association, 60% of adults surveyed said they are overwhelmed by the number of issues facing the country and are not getting the support they need. Mental Health America reports the number of Americans citing anxiety during a mental health screening rose 93% from 2019 to 2020.
Bethany Dearborn Hiser agrees that the piling up of such stress is toxic. In her roles as social worker, case manager, and chaplain for 14 years, Dearborn Hiser listened to person after person recount stories of trauma. She never realized how their stories rooted themselves in her until she found herself grinding her teeth in her sleep or lying awake, unable to sleep. One day, Dearborn Hiser started weeping uncontrollably with a woman at a domestic violence shelter. It was a culminating event that led her to recognize in herself what’s known as secondary trauma.
In 2020, InterVarsity Press published Dearborn Hiser’s book, From Burned Out to Beloved: Soul Care for Wounded Healers — a timely guide not only for social workers, justice advocates, and those on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, but also for anyone needing help to address life’s stresses.
Response spoke with Dearborn Hiser, who is director of soul care for Northwest Family Life in Seattle. This interview is condensed and edited for clarity.
What led you to write From Burned Out to Beloved? Who were you writing it for?
Initially, I was writing this book for Christians in the helping professions. But this past year, there’s a secondary trauma we’ve been experiencing as a nation, especially people of color. People are feeling worn out and depleted, so this book’s audience has grown from my initial intent. The book addresses how we can take care of ourselves with the stress and weight of all the things we navigate in life.
The book includes my own story as someone who didn’t think she needed self-care. I had to reach the limits of my capabilities and experience burnout before I realized I needed to make some dramatic changes.
What brought you to that realization?
What connected the dots for me was a master’s degree class I took on “Self-Care for Social Workers,” taught by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky, author of Trauma Stewardship. I didn’t think I needed that class. I didn’t know the professor at the time, and I didn’t want to take that class. I thought, Oh, it will just tell me to exercise. I thought I was doing fine. I didn’t realize how crazy impacted I was by the stories I was hearing every day through my work. That class opened my eyes to see the pace of life I was maintaining was not healthy.
I was living out of the belief that “I only have value for what I do for other people.” That made it harder for me to make healthy choices for myself.
Then I went through a training called “Genesis Process,” a relapse prevention program to train me to work with people in recovery, and I was further exposed to the deeper inner healing that I needed to do myself.
Were those experiences enough to get through to you?
They were the first steps to breaking through. Then one day I was sitting in my office [at the domestic violence shelter] with a woman I’d been getting to know. I was translating a letter from her daughter about all this domestic violence the daughter had experienced.
It was the first time her mom had heard about it, and she started weeping and saying, “Why do men do this to women?” I just broke open and cried and cried and cried with her. I was crying for her. I was crying for her daughter. And I was crying for all the women who had been experiencing violence as well.
There’s nothing wrong with crying alongside people who are suffering. And yet I felt like, in that moment, I wasn’t able to be present for her in the way that I needed to be. I realized that I was not OK. I had a well of sorrow inside of me that needed to be tended. I hadn’t been processing those stories and how they were impacting me.
It’s empowering to be the one to help others; it’s more challenging to receive help.
Would you say burnout like this is common in our culture?
Yes, we talk about how busy we are as though it is a sign of success. There’s so much emphasis on what we do to give us worth and value. So what does that mean? You don’t have value if you’re not contributing in some way or aren’t busy enough?
People of faith are particularly vulnerable to think that we are doing our work for God. We feel called to make a difference. This can turn into a savior complex. We might think we are being sacrificial with our time and our finances, when, in reality, we are meeting our need for impact or success. It can become toxic and harmful to ourselves and others when we seek to meet our needs through our work.
Your book’s title refers to being beloved. What does that mean?
Being beloved means that we are loved by God not for what we do but for who we are — a deep knowing of us that accepts us in our brokenness. To say that we are beloved flies in the face of the constant messaging we receive from our culture — that we need to do more, be more, have more.
There are many false beliefs, such as the idea that I only have value for what I do; that if I can perform well enough, I can change things; and that I shouldn’t have my own needs, because receiving help is a weakness.
For me, living out of that place of knowing that I’m beloved [by God], I’m freer to say yes when I need to say yes and freer to say no and not fear disappointing people.
To get to that point, we first need to slow down. Next, we need to allow space for reflection — create rhythms of rest that connect us to ourselves and to God. Then, we need to unpack inner beliefs that affect our ability to take care of ourselves and live and love out of a healthier place.
Your book title uses the term “soul-care.” What’s the difference between soul-care and self-care?
Culturally, we think of self-care as things to do: You should go get a massage. I didn’t, for many reasons, think I deserved self-care; didn’t think I had time for it.
Soul-care is doing our own inner work, acknowledging that we have our own wounds. A lot of people are drawn into helping professions because of their own woundedness and compassion for others. As we come alongside people, hoping to be a healing presence, we need to acknowledge that we don’t have it all together. I, too, am broken. I, too, need a healer.
I would say soul-care benefits me physically, but it also benefits me emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually. Sometimes, it’s slowing down instead of just adding more to do.
I used to wake up and check my phone right away. I think a lot of people do. And yet is that the first thing that we want in our minds when we’re starting our day? Maybe we then start our day anxious and stressed, worried about the things that are coming. Can we choose something different that grounds us in our identity as beloved by God before we face the things on our to-do list? Until we address those beliefs and those behaviors, it’s going to be hard to make changes in our lives.
This isn’t a quick fix. I write in my book that I’m a recovering social justice workaholic co-dependent, and I need to be continually practicing what I preach because these are hard habits to break — not just simple techniques or New Year’s resolutions.
How can we engage in soul-care and still work to make a positive impact in the world?
Dramatic changes are needed in our world, but I need to do this work from a place that is grounded as a beloved [child of God], not out of anxiety or fear or desperation.
I have to partner with God. I think God’s heart is breaking from so many layers of injustice and suffering in the world. Taking care of ourselves does not mean, “Oh, I can’t do anything. I’m just doing self-care right now.” My focus equips us to love others from a healthier and more grounded place.
We also need support from each other. When I experienced burnout, I started meeting with a therapist for a little while. These days, I meet with a spiritual director. Give yourself permission to seek support, especially if you’re providing care for others. There’s even a T-shirt that says: “It’s OK to need Jesus and a therapist, too.”
Bethany Dearborn Hiser is the director of soul care for Northwest Family Life, a network of therapists trained to work with survivors of domestic violence and sexual trauma. As a bilingual social worker, chaplain, and pastoral advocate, Dearborn Hiser has worked in a variety of ministry and social service settings with people affected by addiction, sexual exploitation, incarceration, and immigration.
Dearborn Hiser has extensive ties to Seattle Pacific University. Her mother, Kerry Dearborn, was a professor of theology from 1994 to 2016; and her father, Tim Dearborn, was an associate professor and dean of the chapel at SPU.
For more information on Dearborn Hiser’s book and workshops created in conjunction with the book, visit bethanydearbornhiser.com/book.