5 Ways I Help Myself When My Job is to Help Others

JUN. 22, 2018

By Kyle Elliott, MPA, CHES


I’m a helper. Over the years, I’ve supported those living with serious and persistent mental illness, people with substance use disorders and survivors of rape and other traumas. Each day, people come to me with their biggest worries and their biggest wins. They look to me for insight, guidance and condolence. 

My clients are not alone. One in five U.S. adults experience mental illness. And ever since I can remember, I’ve displayed my own signs of mental illness. I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) in my freshman year of college. Later, as a result of being attacked and raped in graduate school, I developed posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

While my daily work is to help others, I’ve learned—through lots of therapy and hard work—that I must take care of myself before I can help those I serve. Prioritizing my recovery and myself has allowed me to be a better friend, a better partner and a better person; it’s also allowed me to be more successful. I’m much better at helping my clients knowing that I have learned how to help myself.

Here are five ways I help myself, so I can better help those I serve.

Adopt a Self-Care Mindset

Self-care. Self-care. Self-care. I preach these words to client after client. As such, I also try to model self-care activities, like exercise, mindful eating and work/life blend.

I’ve come to learn that it’s less about intentional acts of self-care and more about having a constant self-care mindset. In other words, I’ve learned that I don’t always need to set aside a specific time just for self-care. Rather, I find self-care in my regular activities—showering, eating, walking—and that alone improves my mood. 

Know When to Take a Step Back

As a helper, I deal with the most challenging parts of people’s lives, and I want to be with them through it all. However, I’ve come to recognize that some topics can be triggering for my mental health, and I need to take a step back (metaphorically, of course).

If a client brings up a topic that is particularly challenging for me, I take a few extra moments to reflect before I respond. I also acknowledge this with my client and unpack this topic during my next therapy session, if necessary.

Invest in Professional Mental Health Care

One of the highlights of my week is writing a check to my therapist—seriously! Since my first diagnosis of anxiety more than five years ago, the single most beneficial part of my recovery has been therapy. Therapy has allowed me to explore and build upon my biggest strengths as well as develop my “weaknesses.”

While I’m often tempted to talk through issues my clients are having during therapy, I ensure the focus of my sessions are me, my mental health and my recovery.

Take Time Away from Work

One of the greatest forms of self-care is time away from work. Yes, as a helper, I derive energy and joy from supporting others, but it’s still important I take time away from work and clients. Wrapped up in the hustle and bustle of helping others, I easily forget myself.

While work schedules look different for each of us, I’ve found that I work best when I have fixed working hours; do not email outside of work hours (except for emergencies, of course); and find happiness in sources outside of work, such as family, friends, Netflix and the occasional hike. Even these nightly “vacations” from work help me unplug.

Be Patient

I’m great at practicing patience with my clients. I allow them to make mistakes, recognizing that change takes time. But when it comes to myself, I’m often less forgiving, and I tend to set unrealistic expectations.

I’m working on my patience as I continue to care for myself, recognizing that it’s a lot of work to be serving so many people at one time. When I’m late to an appointment or I forget to complete a task, I ask myself, “Am I treating myself with the same patience and respect I treat my clients?” If the answer is no, I reflect and course-correct.

When your daily work is helping others, it can be difficult to carve out time to help yourself. Self-care and time away from work can feel self-serving. But if you view helping yourself as helping others, it gets easier.


Kyle Elliott, MPA, CHES runs CaffeinatedKyle.com. His goal is simple—to help people find jobs they LOVE (or at least tolerate). Kyle loves coffee (if you couldn't tell), writing and eating the same thing at different restaurants.


We’re always accepting submissions to the NAMI Blog! We feature the latest research, stories of recovery, ways to end stigma and strategies for living well with mental illness. Most importantly: We feature your voices

Check out our Submission Guidelines for more information.


JUL, 12, 2018 02:03:24 PM
.... I was diagnosed at age 30, medicated at 44, now 58 I have learned to manage and live with my own mental illness of Depression and Anxiety over the years. It has been a lifelong struggle from several childhood traumas: born with birth defect Cleft Pallet/Heir Lip, Parents divorce, Sibling Incest, Rape, Infant death, and 2 attempted suicides of my Mother (one of which she left her note on my dresser). Today I oversee two brothers also diagnosed with mental illness and I couldn't agree more with your article thank you... I love my local NAMI organization and participate in what I can to support and stand strong for stomping out the stigma associated with mental illness, we are real people living real lives with real illnesses and can help one another to live productively in society together.

JUL, 01, 2018 08:01:56 PM
Good article and very true, i am helping a friend with mental illness, i think he also has ptsd that has been untreated i focus on self love instead of saying self care but i feel it is the same. I tell him to know if the voices in his head are from God or the devil is a easy self love test. If the voices are not promoting self love then it is not the voice of God because God loves him. I try my best to show him love and let him know I love him. Atm moment I am training him to do what he use to do in highschool before he got sick, which is lawn care. I do not let him quit even though he has quit 5 times already, he gets up and continues working after he takes a break. I started a behavior chart to track his progress. I get frustrated and he can tell. I tell inform him that he hurts me because of the way he thinks but to jave patience with me because I love him and want the best.

JUN, 30, 2018 08:01:21 AM
Frank Niehaus
My wife of 40years is currently going thru a bi-polar phase, so I found your article very helpful. I have failed and found my wanting in every one of your 5 ways of self help. The first one I will work on will be giving myself more patience and forgiveness for my job with my love one can be 24/7.

JUN, 29, 2018 05:35:39 PM
Dorothy Thomas
My 36 year old son recently died in his sleep, He struggled with ADHD and bipolar for 26 years. He suffered from alcoholism, as well as drug addicted. We did everything we could to help and support him. He was doing
So well in a methadone program. He complied with check-ins,
Took meds on time. He died in his sleep a month ago. We are devastated. There was no indication of any drugs or alcohol in his apartment. What could have happened???

JUN, 27, 2018 09:21:12 PM
Aimee m. Erickson
I have ptsd that was mistaken for another mental illness and it has been frustrating so far to just ignore the whole condition...need support! Want to be an advocate to others to get right diagnosis and treatment in accordance. Thanks!

JUN, 27, 2018 08:46:38 PM
Jeff D Simpson
Great article! I too am a helper and I'm learning the value of self care. As a Peer Support Specialist I sometimes feel I'm being pulled in all directions emotionally trying to please everyone. I've had to learn to say no and to set up boundaries so that I don't get burned out. Thanks for the article!

JUN, 25, 2018 06:57:15 PM
Lizanne Corbit
This is such an important read! We all need to make a point to make time for self care and to step away from work, but when our work is to help others this can take on a whole different look and level of importance. Being a martyr never serves anyone, running yourself into the ground, not maintaining boundaries doesn't help anyone. It's so important for those in this industry to remember that we truly only can help others as much as we help ourselves. Don't try to fill from an empty cup!

JUN, 25, 2018 06:48:15 AM
Very much needed! I just spoke on Self Care in Washington D.C. this post was very informative and should be applied to all those in the helping profession. Keep up the great and inspiring work!

JUN, 25, 2018 04:46:03 AM
I admire your work and understand how difficult it is to work with people. As I also deal with ill people, I try to relax by doing yoga exercises an of course take vitamins for brain work: https://www.smartpillwiki.com/good-vitamins-for-help-to-improve-your-memory-and-concentration/, as sometimes it is very difficult to cope with the difficulties of human problems. I agree with the claim in the article that we should remember about self-care, as usually we forget about ourselves and sacrifice ourselves.

JUN, 24, 2018 03:42:46 PM
Kyle Elliott, MPA, CHES
Thank you so very much for allowing me to share a few of my tips!

Submit to the NAMI Blog

We’re always accepting submissions to the NAMI Blog! We feature the latest research, stories of recovery, ways to end stigma and strategies for living well with mental illness. Most importantly: We feature your voices.

Check out our Submission Guidelines for more information.