When I talk with therapists and counsellors about self-care, I like using the metaphor of a little boat bobbing in the water*. There are rocks under the water. When the water level is high enough, the boat will float safely along. If the water level gets too low, however, the boat is in danger of being grounded and damaged by a rock.
In this metaphor, the boat is you; the inevitable challenges and difficulties of life are the rocks. Self-care aims to help you keep the water level up so that you can move along safely. Of course there are other factors that affect things, such as health crises, financial issues, bereavements, etc, so self-care can’t be a cure-all; but self-care can be a very significant and helpful part of the whole picture.
If you’re a therapist or counsellor, self-care matters — it really matters. If you aren’t attending to your own needs, your energy will be depleted and you’ll be less available for others, as well as being less resilient inside.Therapists: If you aren't attending to your own needs, your clients will suffer. Click To Tweet
Getting good-quality sleep, time off, nutrition, exercise and health care are all vital aspects of self-care. And what else? Here are some of my other thoughts about self-care – some of them might surprise you!
1. Channel Your Aggressive and Competitive Impulses
Self-care isn’t just about the ‘warm fuzzies’ – the cups of cocoa and hot scented baths; it’s also about recognising that you need to express the part of you that wants to roar a bit! You may need to let off steam in a very energetic or competitive way, such as on the tennis court, or playing games like Scrabble or poker. Going on demonstrations or campaigning for a cause you really care about can also be a very productive and expressive outlet for this side of you.
As a therapist, you are used to bracketing your aggressive and competitive impulses when they arise in the consulting room. Hopefully you’re noticing these feelings, wondering about what they may be telling you about your client’s experience and needs, and reflecting on them in supervision; but often they stay unexpressed.
And besides what gets triggered by clients, you will also have your own innate drives towards aggression and competition.
Aggressive and competitive feelings can be accepted, sublimated and transformed through the purposeful, energetic movement of using a potter’s wheel, dancing, African drumming, or digging the garden. Painting or drawing vigorously and with intense focused energy can be another wonderful way to express destructive-creative impulses safely and productively.Therapists: Express the part of you that wants to roar a bit! Click To Tweet
2. Find Ways of Story-telling
You went into this profession because you find people fascinating. As a therapist, you’ll have heard many, many intriguing and incredibly interesting personal stories. And of course, it’s all confidential! You can’t regale your friends and family with the compelling tales of courage, tragedy and bizarre situations that you hear in the therapy room. So what do you do with that natural urge for story-telling and sharing that most humans feel?
One way is to read novels and biographies. Then, whether you’re in a book group, or just chatting to a friend, you can safely discuss the characters’ motives, feelings and actions without having to worry about confidentiality. Movies and plays can also work extremely well in this way, of course.
Another thing you could do is to write. Of course, we do not write about our clients; but there may be themes that emerge in client work generally that could be adapted and thought about in a different way. And of course, you can always refer to your own personal experience (perhaps in disguise); or you can respond with your own thoughts about human stories that you hear in the news.
Consider poetry, fiction, and non-fiction: do any of these forms appeal to you? It doesn’t have to be for publication (although it could be) – it could just be for yourself, as a form of private expression. Art journaling can be a very fulfilling merger of writing/ drawing/ painting/ crafts (take a look at my Pinterest board, Creative Art Journals, to get ideas).
3. Connect with Your Playfulness
You need play in your life! It’s one of the basic systems in the brain, hard-wired into you. Play could take the form of sexual intimacy; playing a musical instrument; any number of hobbies, sports and games; and playing with your children or grandchildren. Choose the ones that appeal to you, and if necessary, schedule them into your calendar. Play matters, and mustn’t be allowed to fade away for too long when you’ve been busy with work-type things.
To get maximum benefit from play, add in some opportunities to challenge yourself and get out of your comfort zone. This might mean trying a new activity (life drawing, maybe?) or learning a new skill that’s related to a current activity (such as learning a fancy new stitch, if you’re a knitter).Therapists: You need play in your life! Click To Tweet
4. Access The Supportive Power of Other People
Appreciation and affection from your family and friends can do wonders, especially on days when you’re feeling the strain of receiving and holding your clients’ difficult or traumatised inner worlds.
Social connection is vital, too. Even the most introverted therapist will need some degree of social contact with friends, to avoid an unhealthy dependency on clients. Schedule time with friends on a regular basis, whether it’s going out together, or just having a cup of tea and a chat.
Professional connections are also crucially important. The supervision process is an important protection for clients, and a way of helping you do your best work; but regular supervision should also form part of your self-care package, so that you feel well supported and resourced in your work.
And when you’re particularly feeling the strain — or just want to learn to tune into yourself better — get therapy for yourself! Read my article, The Crucial Thing Every Therapist Should Know, which covers many reasons why therapists should have (or have had) therapy themselves.
5. Keep it Real
Being true to your core values, and practising what you preach by (for example) regularly giving your family loving attention and care, is going to help you feel ‘right’ inside. At the same time, it’s very important to remember that perfection is not the goal; ‘good-enough’ is what’s needed.
Staying in touch with your feelings will also help you feel whole and real inside. Allow yourself to be vulnerable, truthful, and to have needs — yes, all those things you encourage in your clients can be for you as well!
And if you can be honest and genuine, and can share any troubling aspects of your clinical work or personal relationships in supervision or therapy, you’ll be practising one of the most powerful forms of self-care.Therapists: Allow yourself to be vulnerable, truthful, and to have needs! #selfcare Click To Tweet
Because You’re Worth It!
You probably encourage your clients to make time and space for self-care. You know that when they can allow themselves what their bodies, minds and hearts need, then they will be in a better place emotionally, and be better equipped to manage their relationships and the many challenges of day-to-day living.
So take your own medicine: do what you want your clients to do! You owe it to your clients, your loved ones, and yourself to practise self-care. Get good-quality sleep, rest, nutrition, exercise and health care. Tell stories, use your aggression and competitiveness, play, be nurtured, see friends, love, be authentic.
Look back through this article, and pick something you can do today. Then pick another thing tomorrow. Before long, great self-care will have made you a more effective therapist; a more available and better-resourced partner, friend or parent; and a happier, calmer person deep within.Therapists: Tell stories, use your aggression and competitiveness, play, be nurtured, see… Click To Tweet
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic in the comments below!
*Thanks to Chris Johnstone for this metaphor. http://chrisjohnstone.info
Some good books for therapists which discuss self-care:
Adams, M., (2013) ‘The Myth of the Untroubled Therapist’
Bush, A. D., (2015) ‘Simple Self-Care for Therapists’
Cozolino, L., (2004) ‘The Making of a Therapist: a Practical Guide for the Inner Journey’
Kottler, J., (2010) ‘On Becoming a Therapist’
McWilliams, N., (2004) ‘Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy’
Norcross, J.C. & Guy, J.D., (2007) ‘Leaving it at the Office: a Guide to Psychotherapist Self-Care’
Rothschild, B., (2006) ’Help for the Helper’
Siegel, D.J., (2010) ‘The Mindful Therapist: a Clinician’s Guide to Mindsight and Neural Integration’
Van Dernoot Lipsky, L. & Burk, C., (2009) ’Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others’
Wicks, R.J., (2008) ‘The Resilient Clinician’