As the Therapist, what does it mean to engage in self-care?
We use the term self-care broadly, which often comes as a recommendation to our clients who express signs of intense stress or burn-out. Our clients feel distress and it is our job to help alleviate their symptoms while also building an arsenal of skills to prevent relapse. At the same time, we are human first and our work, as clinicians, is demanding and can take a toll on us inside and outside of the therapy room.
Self-care is preventative medicine, not a band-aid when we need stitches. It is a vital ingredient in our recipe for happiness. Self-care means showing up for yourself as you do for others. It can be easy to prioritize our work, family, and friends, ignoring ourselves in the process.
It helps to think of self-care as an act of kindness. The way we show up for ourselves is vital to the work we do with clients. Life can be unpredictable, so we need strategies for handling our own emotional needs, especially in times of great difficulty. Helping professionals, like marriage and family therapists, are at considerable risk of burn-out.
Therapists are not super humans, we, like our clients, need ways to protect our time, space, and energy. Our self-care is a fitting example of systemic therapy in that it does not exist in a vacuum, and it is not one-sided. To feel whole, we must nurture our mind and body. It is an interconnected relationship that hinges on how we use, protect, and maintain our energy.
When we think about how we want to use our energy, it brings focus to our mental and physical state. Life runs on energy. And when we are careful and thoughtful about our energy needs, we are better able to handle stressful situations. Self-care is not a prescription we take once we hit the bottom of the barrel. Instead, it starts with prioritizing yourself and building sustainable healthy habits.
As therapists we know there is no one size fits all on self-care. The foundation starts with healthy choices. The cornerstones of self-care include exercise, sleep, hydration, and healthy eating. These are the pillars that support a foundation of well-being. When these core items align, we can achieve balance in our personal and professional lives.
Here are some questions and reflections that can help you think about your care as a therapist:
- How do I want to use my time? Time is our most precious commodity. Life gets busy, and we can easily over-commit our time to keep others happy or we may suffer from FOMO. Either way, it is okay to say no to things you do not want to do. Tap into your inner why by asking yourself, "why am I saying yes to this? " If you are hesitating or trying to justify your decision, go with "no, thank you!"
- What are my energy needs? First, it is essential to understand your energy needs. For some, being extra social is invigorating, while others feel zapped by how much energy it takes them to engage socially. Knowing what we need to keep the tank full makes us feel more mentally balanced. Make sure you are paying attention to your energy tank. Do not wait until you are running on fumes to refuel.
- What are my boundaries? Boundaries protect emotional energy. As therapists, we often recommend setting and maintaining clear boundaries to clients. Are you doing this in your life as well?
- How do I make activity part of my daily routine? Being active does not mean you need to be a top athlete. Movement improves our mental and physical well-being. One way to enhance your activity is to move more each day. Everyone has a different level of fitness, so set realistic activity goals. For example, start walking for 10-15 minutes daily and gradually build on your time goal. Suggestions we give to a client might look like -- make your goals realistic and achievable. Let us make sure we follow the same advice.
- Am I being mindful of choices that impact my health? Making mindful choices around eating, drinking, exercising, and sleeping means consciously choosing what we do. Mindless eating and drinking are typical examples of how self-care goes off track. It can become a downward spiral of justifying our choices and stewing in guilt's juices if we make a poor choice. Instead, we can choose with awareness and acceptance of our selection. No need to ruminate. Be mindful and move forward.
- How do I keep myself accountable for the practice of self-care? Staying responsible for our habits is one way to ensure our self-care is not dwindling. There are multiple ways to keep track of our health habits. For some, apps are the best way to measure what we are doing in the interest of staying accountable. For others, it can be having a workout buddy or setting goals with a friend or partner with the same health interest. Either way, make your care as a therapist a priority.