2022 GCSW Alum Publishes Book on Self Care for Helpers - University of Houston
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GCSW Alum Publishes Book on Self Care for Helpers


April 14, 2022

(HOUSTON, TX) - Holly K. Oxhandler, PhD, LMSW, (MSW '11/PhD '14) recently authored a book titled "The Soul of the Helper: Seven Stages to Seeing the Sacred Within Yourself So You Can See It in Others." 

Dr. Holly Oxhandler currently serves as Associate Dean for Research and Faculty Development and Associate Professor of the Diane R. Garland School of Social Work at Baylor University. 

We caught up with Dr. Holly to learn more about why she believes it was necessary to write a book about maintaining your well-being, especially for those working within helping fields.


Name: Holly K. Oxhandler
Graduation from GCSW: MSW 2011/PhD 2014

How did the need to write and publish "The Soul of the Helper" come about? 

Over the last 13 years, I've studied the intersection of spirituality and mental health within social work and related disciplines. In The Soul of the HelperI describe how this intersection has been part of my personal life even before becoming a researcher. For example, layers of my journey with mental health struggles (which some research shows over 80% of us will face at some point in our lives) included experiences with depression, anxiety, and trauma. Alongside these, my spirituality has been an essential part of my identity and a way of coping with these struggles (and I'm not alone – the General Social Survey reports that over 80% of US adults consider themselves spiritual).

In 2017, while studying one essential group of helpers – mental health care providers – I noticed a pattern in my data. The more motivated mental health care providers were to live out their faith (whatever they believed), the more likely they would consider their clients' spirituality. This is important because research has shown us that when clients' religion or spirituality is ethically considered in mental health care, the treatment is as or more effective than when this area of clients' lives is avoided.

The result of noticing this pattern included publishing a grounded theory called Namaste Theory, based on my humble understanding of the Sanskrit term, namaste, as I read from others connected to its cultural roots. Although the literal translation means "I bow to you," it's often interpreted to mean "the Sacred within me honors the Sacred within you." Or, as the mental health care providers more deeply recognize the Sacred within themselves, they tend to remember the Sacred within their clients and consider this area of clients' lives in treatment. 

Over time, I realized this theory isn't just for mental health care providers but also helpers. As helpers see and serve the Sacred within themselves, they're more likely to recognize the Sacred within others, including paying close attention to the intersection of spirituality and mental health within our own lives so we can humbly hold that space for others from a place of groundedness. I curiously lived into this theory within my own life, continued to talk with other helpers about it, and reached a point where I could no longer not write this book. Plus, in alignment with my heart as a social worker, I've held an honest hope to make this research more accessible for everyday helpers alongside a posture of humility and respect for others' diverse experiences.

Your book description states that "by allowing [caregivers] to enter stillness, caregivers will recognize that they are worthy of care." Where does the idea of self-sacrifice to the point of self-destruction stem from?

Like many complex issues in social work, I think there are a variety of influences at the micro, mezzo, and macro levels that contribute to caregivers' and helpers' struggles with burnout and remembering their inherent worth, including that they are worthy of care. For many, it may be tied to messages they've picked up along their journey from family, influential people, or surrounding systems that prioritize self-sacrifice over self-care. The pressure caregivers experience to keep going at their own well-being's expense is very common. Others may have adopted an inner critic that pushes them to keep going beyond their capacity or perhaps use busyness to numb past wounds or layers of pain. For others, pride may be at the root, with a sense of being "the helper" and not needing help from others, or perhaps fear is at the core, with past experiences communicating it's not safe to receive support. Further, a lack of access, resources, or information can also be systemic issues that keep caregivers chronically busy to neglect their own needs. 

There may also be an underlying behavioral addiction worth naming, recognizing how helpers are "rewarded" by others' accolades and affirmations for their over-functioning (e.g., "I don't know how you do it all!"). Although helpers may not realize this is even happening, I think the accolades and affirmations, alongside an aversion to rejection, can keep many moving at an unsustainable pace that they don't even know how to slow down to care for themselves.

What key finding or story from your book did you find most surprising during the writing process? 

Truthfully, what was most surprising was how transformative the writing process for The Soul of the Helper ended up being, which was different from my typical research articles. At the heart of this book was a desire to translate some of the research on spirituality and mental health to be more accessible and serve everyday helpers, recognizing the many barriers to accessing research articles. But as I moved further into the writing process and after consulting with a trusted colleague, it became clear that this book needed an autoethnographic approach that would require me to be far more vulnerable in my writing than ever before. As I leaned into and reflected upon the research and my own lived experiences as a helper and at the intersection of spirituality and mental health, these seven stages began to surface and offer language around my experience of embodying it. Even the practical details around writing this book changed me, as I wrote it over about three and a half years while watching the sunrise and listening to music. Playlists are available here via the free companion guide available to those who have purchased the book.

I was also surprised by some of the memories that resurfaced and my honest vulnerability throughout this book. Readers will find layers of my journey that aren't as visible in previous writing, including my walk with sobriety, anxiety, depression, spiritual struggles, sacred moments, parenthood, academia, contemplative practices, etc. While I've found writing the book to be a personal reward for me, it's been humbling to hear how these experiences have resonated with others who indicate this book is offering them language for their journey. 

How did your time at the GCSW shape your career and educational path? 

The empowering and supportive community I experienced among my mentors and the GCSW faculty, staff, and students while I was there created the container I needed to deeply connect with and thrive within the area of research that I had fallen in love with. The enthusiastic support that faculty and staff extended toward ideas I would have or concepts I was contemplating motivated me to keep dreaming as a social worker and researcher. Plus, my colleagues in both my MSW and PhD cohorts were compassionate and instrumental in me becoming the person I am today.

There were also many professional doors that Drs. Danielle Parrish, Andy Achenbaum, Former Dean Ira Colby, and others generously opened for me that transformed my research trajectory. When it comes to being the professor I am today; I attribute much of what I do in the classroom to what I learned from watching how Sandra Lopez, Profs. Brené Brown, Luis Torres, and Patrick Leung led their classes and cared for their students as whole people. There are so many layers to a social work program that influence us, and I'm grateful for the ways GCSW supported me in not only becoming the social worker, professor, and researcher I am today, but the whole of who I am as a fellow traveler.  

What was a highlight of your time at the GCSW? 

It's difficult to narrow down a single highlight since my time at GCSW was so formative. Perhaps the memories that are most special to me include being Danielle Parrish's graduate assistant, sitting in Sandra Lopez's Professional Self-Care class, and studying abroad in Turkey under Andy Achenbaum's mentoring alongside other students, staff, and faculty. I also experienced a lot of personal life events during my time at GCSW – including getting engaged and married, as well as navigating the months of pregnancy and early parenthood – and I have many fond memories of how the community supported me through those moments with tenderness. 

Is there a key piece of advice you would give to our students who hope to continue their education in social work? 

Emphasized within the ethical principle of "Competence" in the National Association of Social Workers' (NASW) Code of Ethics is a recognition that social workers are lifelong learners, particularly as we "continually strive to increase [our] professional knowledge and skills and to apply them in practice" (NASW, 2021). 

Regardless of where or how GCSW students continue their education, I hope that they do continue their learning journey as social workers with a posture of humility, curiosity, openness, and sincere hope that their unique work to serve others does, in fact, matter.

In chapter 10 (Serve) of The Soul of the HelperI write: "as cliché as this may sound, there is no one like you. No one has walked your journey, navigated your traumas and heartaches, experienced the love and joy you've experienced, obtained the same education you have, traveled to all the same places as you, or seen all you have seen. No one can serve others quite like you can serve others. As you connect with the divine spark as only you can, as you serve in unique ways, I hope you'll find new energy and a deeper well from which to draw." 

This is my hope and advice as students continue their education in social work, either formally or through continuing education: finding the unique way they can serve that makes them come alive and steward the gift of that awareness with their whole hearts.

To those considering a PhD or DSW in social work, I would encourage these students to remain connected with the topic or area within our profession that they recognize as theirs to do and that overall feels more sustaining rather than draining. It is a gift to have a deep passion and curiosity around a particular area of interest, honoring that we each play a humble role in advocating, alleviating, and helping others amid many complex social issues. My humble advice would be to pay attention to that passion and curiosity, steward that awareness, and take good care of yourself along the journey to sustain your work and because you're worth it. 

The GCSW's vision is to achieve social justice. How do you think your publication fits into this vision? 

One of the core messages of this book includes a tender invitation to wake up to our inherent worth or the Sacred within ourselves. As I describe in The Soul of the Helper, I humbly question our ability to see this intrinsic worth within others (including those we serve) if we aren't practicing seeking it within ourselves. And yet, when we see this inherent worth within ourselves that we did nothing to earn or achieve, we recognize that every person around us also carries this divine spark, this intrinsic worth within them. 

From this deep recognition of our inherent worth – our enoughness and belovedness as we are – we then shift with compassion to serve. This service includes both honestly tending to our own needs (so we aren't trying to meet those needs through service with strings attached subconsciously) and humbly meeting the needs of others, including through our social justice efforts. When we serve from this place of knowing we're enough as we are, our service is less likely to be laced with projected pain, and we're better attuned to meeting the needs of those around us.

Anything else you would like to share?

It's a humbling gift to share a bit about this book and the lessons I've learned along the way with the GCSW community, and I'm honored to be an alumna of UH's GCSW. I wish I had this book during my MSW and PhD years, and I sincerely hope it serves fellow helpers along their journey.

Thank you to the GCSW community for your presence and all you do to serve others within the social work building and beyond its walls.


Bio: Holly K. Oxhandler, PhD, LMSW is the Associate Dean for Research and Faculty Development at Baylor University's Diana R. Garland School of Social Work. She's the author of The Soul of the Helper, studies the intersection of spirituality and mental health, and hosts CXMH, a podcast on faith and mental health. You can learn more about Dr. Oxhandler's work by visiting her website, checking out her newsletter, or following her @hollyoxhandler on social media.

Pick up a copy of The Soul of the Helper wherever you buy your books or receive a 40% discount through Templeton Press using the code PRESS40OFF. You may also access a free copy of the Companion Guide that pairs with this book and includes playlists, a facilitator guide, recommended reading, and more.