The Importance of Therapist Self-Care

“Lighten up on yourself. No one is perfect. Gently accept your humanness.”
–Deborah Day

Self-care (SC) is the most abundant message proclaimed by therapists to clients within the therapeutic hour. The idea behind caring for one’s self is that no one can alleviate our stress, create a balanced life, or work within our emotions, beliefs, and values but ourselves. SC highlights the importance of choices that we each make on a daily. Therapists sometimes forget they too need to practice what they preach. SC is as much for us as it is for the people we counsel. Providing therapeutic services without grounding in healthy SC can take its toll on the professional.

Burnout has a genuine cost on economical, emotional, psychological, and intellectual fronts. Graduate school impressed upon me the need to care for myself. I cannot give away what I do not have. I have seen my share of counselors who have left the profession because of an inability to sustain healthy self-care in their lives. Many of those clinicians who neglected their self-care were quality and empathic individuals. They provide us with examples of why SC is critical to longevity and success.

Helpers need help from time to time. There is no shame in admitting a struggle to integrate SC to your daily life.

Supervision

Quality supervision is the key to success in this field. In supervision you have an opportunity to explore how the work is affecting you personally and professionally. It is a time when you can learn ways strike balance in all areas of life as you navigate the journey from novice to master. New counselors often have the most difficulty with self-care. I can recall early on in my career this overwhelming need to get work done even at the expense of my health. In time I came to realize that I do better work when I am in a healthy place. Paperwork will always be there. You and I will not be here forever. Neither will our opportunities for self-care.

Consider how you operate when you have experienced poor or insufficient sleep.

It is difficult to stay attenuated to another person when the mind is not properly rested. Sleep is the bedrock of healthy and psychological wellbeing. An internship supervisor once taught me it was beneficial to send clients home who were fatigued or not well rested. His reasoning was that a person would most likely not focus or retain what was said in that session. The same logic also applies to the therapist.  Not caring of one’s self can lead to sickness which also affects one’s ability to counsel well. Ultimately when we do not care properly for ourselves not only do we suffer but so to do our clients and others.

Self-care therefore has an ethical backdrop. Sound and competent clinical care requires a practitioner who recognizes their limits, needs, and areas for growth. As you continue reading take inventory of your own SC strategies and begin to identify areas needing work. Remember the goal of SC is to find the balance.

Work-Life-Play Balance

The earliest memory I have from graduate school was a professor speaking about self-care and developing ways to leave issues at the office. The idea she proposed was a Gestalt-inspired idea. She would open her desk draw and physically throw all her work problems into it. She would then leave the office and come back the next day to begin again where she left off. In her mind work and home life were separated. This idea spoke to me. Today, I choose to work in a place that is over an hour from my home. The daily commute is my self-care. I have little to no distractions. I jam to music and sing as loud as I want. And some days I choose to drive in silence taking in the scene ahead of me. SC does not have to be complicated.

A lesson I try to instill in clients or supervises is self-care is not selfish. Recognize it is the most compassionate thing you can do for yourself. No one knows what you need best but you. Find what works with your schedule and commitments. Keep it simple. Perhaps making yourself a cup of coffee or going for a short walk is what you can do at this moment. Avoid self-critical or defeating statements. Set an intention every morning to do at least one thing for just yourself.

Sometimes it becomes difficult to establish self-care for one reason or another. Perhaps you are going through a challenging time, maybe you note depression or anxiety, or another health issue arising. As practicing clinicians, we need to remember counseling and medical care works for us too. Therapy has helped me grow in more ways than I can write in this post. It is important for me to see a therapist who also cares for his or her psychological wellbeing. Clients want to know that we also practice what we preach.

It is ok to have a life outside of being a therapist or helping professional. I can recall a time when I over-identified with the role of helping professional. At that point I neglected to have a life. Today I recognize life is too short. It is important to play as hard as I work. Vacation time, paid time off, and personal time are your tickets for self-care. Many of the companies I have worked had a use it or lose it policy. Make a choice to use that time for a vacation with your family or friends. Take a mental health day. What you decide to do on that day is up to you and people you choose to be around.

9 Dimensions of Self-Care

  1. EmotionalThe healing work of therapy can affect us at any stage of professional development. Ask yourself how are you handling relationships at work and home? Sometimes emotions come out sideways when we are not aware of how stress is impacting us. Consider ways to alleviate this by creating a ritual to not bring work to home or home to work. Schedule important discussions when you and the other party have time.
  2. FinancialI have often heard people say money is the root of all evil. I believe it is how we think about money and what we do with it that causes most of the problems in life. Explore how money is spent or saved. Are you living within your means? Are you trying to keep up with the Jefferson’s? It can be a struggle to ask for a raise at work. Know your worth and come prepared with reasons to support your request. Financial fear is real. Money makes the world operate. If you have done your part, accept what is happening around you. Seek financial help when necessary.
  3. Social: As Homo sapiens we are born to be social creatures. Being a therapist can affect your social network. It is important that you surround yourself with healthy people who help you feel connected. Recognize limitations and boundaries. Avoid being a friend’s or co-worker’s therapist. Remember it is perfectly ok to say NO. Support systems are fundamental at all stages of development. Never go against your values or beliefs.
  4. Spiritual Building a life centered on meaning and purpose is shown to increase satisfaction with life. Allow yourself to connect to institutions, places, or people who bring out your higher self. For some spirituality and religion co-exist. This is perfectly ok. Practice what works. Remember even when life gets stressful you have a purpose for being here. Approach life with curiosity and openness.
  5. Occupational: A quote I find myself repeating is “If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.” I love being a therapist. Every day is a mystery that unfolds before me. Find a place that makes you feel a sense of belonging and values your voice. Take risks at work. Do not be afraid to make mistakes. Honesty is always the best policy. Challenge yourself and speak up if you need a new skill or competency to acquire. You are the best advocate for yourself. Trust that inner voice. When in doubt seek supervision or a trusted colleague the process an experience.
  6. Physical: Health is critical to survival. Physical activity, nutrition, sleep, and managing illness is the highest form of self-love you can show yourself. Remember H.A.L.T.= Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. How we feel physically affects our emotional and psychological selves. Have you put off that scheduled medical appointment? Keep current on medical check-ups and exams.
  7.  Culture: I grew up in a distinctly immigrant Italian household where food and deep conversation ruled day-to-day life. Today I strive to nourish that cultural aspect by cooking, talking with others, or finding a movie that makes me think deeply. Honor the cultural background and traditions that brought you into this world. I often find other traditions to be appealing and incorporate pieces that resonate well with my needs and framework. The world is filled with traditions that embrace healing and balance. smudging with sage, yoga, mindfulness meditation, art, and nature are a few of the pieced of my SC plan that alleviate the stress and help me to find balance.
  8. Intellectual: Your mind is a beautiful thing. Tap into your creative abilities or expand your horizons and abilities. Learning an instrument or a new language can keep your brain new. Find a passion that you can make your hobby. Get involved with organizations that allow you to use your intellect. Believe in yourself. Learning never stops. Life is a classroom and we are its students. Choose to keep growing. I passionately believe knowledge is power. Use that power to transform your life and others.
  9. Environmental: The AA slogan “People. Places, and Things” has most salience here. Surround yourself in a milieu that promotes growth and change. Create a soothing environment in your office and home where you feel comfortable and at ease. What you allow around you and in your energy space has the power to affect you. Create healthy vibrations that stimulate you and nourish you. Remove people, places, or things that promote negativity and destructive behaviors.

Choices

Self-care is an important aspect of clinician wellbeing. In reading this it is my hope that you look inward to see where work remains unfinished. After almost seven years in the field I have not perfected self-care. Today I recognize responsibility for my self-care rests on my shoulders. No one can do for me what I am not willing to do for myself. Sometimes we have to make hard decisions. Setting a boundary or changing some aspect of life is not always an easy task. I often pause to remember the words of Yoda when he said, “Do or do not there is no try.” Self-care is about action. Not making a choice is an action. Consider how and what are affected by the choices you make. competent professional service requires us to be within our faculties and demonstrating high degree of skilled application. We model self-care. If you are currently struggling with the concept of self-care in your life, ask yourself….”What is one small thing I will do today for myself?” Wake up each morning with that same question. Do not be afraid to seek professional help if you are experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety, addiction, or another condition which might inhibit your potential to achieve high quality self-care. Consult your agency for their employee assistance program (EAP) a free and confidential program which centers on counselor wellness. The most important lesson to remember is the choice is yours. Best wishes on your journey to self-care.

As always please feel free to comment below how you have grown in making self-care a priority in your life.

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