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As a First Responder and Service Provider how do I negate guilt when prioritizing myself?

As a first responder, putting others before yourself comes naturally. It is your job to be there first, to prioritize those in need, and to help them as best as you can. Whether you are a police officer, firefighter, hospital staff, or any other, you are constantly putting yourself second in your everyday life. 

Due to this construct, when it comes to self-care, first responders can feel guilty. Self-care is often neglected in pursuit of job success, and job success for first responders means saving lives. First responders push themselves to the limit in an effort to do their jobs the best they can. But when you burn the candle at both ends and forget to take a break, it can lead to burnout. 

How to Overcome Guilt for Prioritizing Yourself as a First Responder

First things first: self-care is not selfish, and you should never feel guilty taking care of yourself. In fact, self-care is the complete opposite. It is essential for your mental, emotional, and physical health to sometimes put yourself first. It allows you to reset when you need to, recharge your energy, and come back stronger to be more efficient. As first responders, you have a responsibility to be your best physically, mentally, and emotionally. This can’t happen if you do not take care of yourself and constantly burn yourself out. 

When you start to feel guilty about taking care of your mental and physical well-being, remind yourself of the effects of what it would be like at your job if you weren’t at your best. Unfortunately, due to the nature of a first responder role, it can mean life or death if not executed properly. Taking the time to self-care will ensure you are providing for those in need at your absolute best. 

Healthy Ways to Prioritize Yourself

Despite the demands of your job, you can always make time to prioritize your mental and physical health. This is easier said than done, as it takes some mental work to rewire your brain to start putting yourself first. By taking small, deliberate steps, you can build a holistic and sustainable environment. Here are a few ways to start.

Learn how to say no

In a first responder line of work, everything feels important. And to some extent, everything is important. While that feeling is normal and valid, and, understandably, you cannot always say no, there are some things in your personal life that you can say no to. Helping others comes second nature to you, so lending a helping hand, or taking on more responsibility may be something that you want to do but do not have the mental capacity to handle. It’s okay to take some time to yourself as much as you can so that your main focus can be performing well at your job.

Take time to relax

Sometimes we all just need time to do absolutely nothing. You don’t always have to be on the go! You can simply enjoy your or your family's presence in a casual atmosphere. Sometimes doing nothing can help relax your mind and ease your conscience. 

Understand what you want out of your career

Do you want to become the chief at a fire station? The head doctor at the hospital? Or do you just want to do your job successfully and that will be enough to fulfill you? The answer may not be obvious now, but ask yourself how you want to be remembered, or what you want your life to look like outside of work. Through this self-reflection, you can get a better understanding of your long-term career vision, and maybe strategize on how to implement some self-care into your demanding schedule. 

  1. Source: Caneel Joyce (2023) Overcoming Guilt of Self-Care: Why It’s Important For Leaders and How to Do it

  1. Source: Donna McGeorge (2022) Don’t Feel Guilty for Prioritizing Yourself Over Work

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