I think there is a misunderstanding in the field today on the nature and importance of self-care in a counselor’s career. We pay lip service to the value of counselor self-care; yet it isn’t taught in schools and isn’t accentuated in most major literature. What else are we supposed to infer, but that it isn’t of importance? Unfortunately, many new counselors do assume that, and risk burnout. That’s not good! The ACA provides notable exception to this rule, but by and large, self-care is shamefully under-emphasized. Which means it’s simply up to us to make up the difference.
Self-care, to me, means more than just patting yourself on the back once in a while. Self-care means taking time to yourself. I confess that I’m an introvert, so I’m biased about the importance of “recharge time” alone after spending the day in a people-saturated environment. But even my extraverted colleagues tell me they benefit from time to themselves to collect their thoughts and not be needed for a little while. Time to yourself means time alone, and uninterrupted. It may be as short as twenty minutes, or as long as all day or weekend! Time to yourself means the right to pursue your own hobbies, your own “therapy”, whether it be literally time on the couch, or a sport, a craft project, or a second job. Our primary job is so consuming, I feel it’s necessary at times to pour ourselves into something else for a time, just for balance.
Another part of my self-care definition is to allow yourself a break from being a counselor some of the time. I find myself constantly having trouble talking about anything to do with me personally, even in everyday conversations. In the office, we have to be so careful of inappropriate self-disclosure, I forget at times how to share as a person, not as a counselor! Sometimes what my self-care turns out to be is letting myself talk about my day, my cares, and my concerns. Self-care can just be allowing relationships outside of the office to be reciprocal and not one-sided.
If I may share a soapbox with fellow ACA blogger and friend Diana Pitaru, I believe self-care is also about contributing to the profession by building up another counselor or counseling student. She’s right. You do hear a lot more negativity and competition than positivity among professionals these days. When you pay it forward by encouraging instead of discouraging another struggling counselor, you improve the profession as a whole. That will come back to you in a multitude of ways. If our community is more healthy, we are more healthy.
Self-care is also about turning that encouragement on you sometimes. Those in the helping professions – counselors, doctors, police officers, social workers, and many more – are often held to an impossible standard by the general public. There is an idea, perpetuated by television and movies, that the good helping professional gives until they drop. They never put themselves or their families first. They never make mistakes. And somehow this is seen as the right thing, the appropriate thing. I will admit that counseling is a profession that demands more, and a profession I am willing to give more to. But more doesn’t mean all. The mentality that can creep in (if we let it!) is that setting boundaries is being selfish. I acknowledge that we see hurting people, and in some cases, allowances should be given. But not in all cases, and not at the expense of yourself or your family life. Self-care means also allowing yourself to be a human being with needs to be respected.
Though there are so many other facets of self-care I would love to discuss, I will limit it to one final point I think is unrecognized in most definitions. Counselor self-care is also represented by a commitment to one’s own growth as a professional. Pursuing further knowledge in your field, expanding your abilities, and developing your own counseling style in further detail all represent the best kind of self-care. Dedicating effort to your own professional development assigns value to your contribution to the field. It says, “I care about nurturing what I do, because what I do matters.” We are creatures of purpose. When we feel fulfilled, everything else in our lives becomes easier. By caring about how we do what we do, we are really caring for ourselves.
It’s self-care. We are in charge of it! This means we are not limited in any way as to how or when to pursue it. We make this happen, or not happen, for ourselves every day. So, will it happen today? It’s up to you.
You can visit the ACA’s Taskforce on Counselor Wellness and Impairment at http://www.counseling.org/wellness_taskforce/index.htm
Stephanie Ann Adams is a counselor-intern who believes in the ability of the mind to understand and change behaviors, and in each person’s power to create the life they want. Her blog, can be found at www.sassynsane.blogspot.com.