I am sure there are very few people reading this who are not familiar with the term ‘self care.’ This concept was introduced to me in the context of burnout, secondary trauma and the perils of working with people some fifteen years ago. At that time, I felt pretty invincible, like I had ‘myself’ together. In hindsight, I had a lot to learn, and if I am totally honest, at that time I had no concept of the valuable professional and life lessons that I could have learned from veteran practitioners in our field. Here’s hoping that you are more self-aware than I was…
Historically, I took a passive approach to self care. Life simply happened and very little stuck with me. I rode, ran, swam and basically exhausted myself over the foothills of the Colorado Rocky Mountains. For quite a while, my method worked. This was not a conscious effort on my part, I just played hard. My openness with peers, friends and colleagues helped unstick some of the heavier stuff that my physical exertion failed to wash off. Looking back, though, I realize that my mind and emotions were already starting to accumulate, slowly but surely, a growing burden of vicarious baggage. And I was not doing anything besides exercising and writing to process and unclog this back up. During my school’s orientation I remember being urged to ‘do your own work’ and later even blogged about the issue. I reached a point where I wished that I had paid closer attention to my professors’ and my own advice. It was somewhere towards the end of my third year of school (some ten years after self care was introduced to me) that my invincible, enthusiastic, motivated cart began to wobble and while the wheels did not fall off, I certainly experienced a flat tire. Self care is something I promote with nearly all of my clients and yet it has been elusive to practice for myself.
I wish I had taken heed to self care more seriously and had been more deliberate in my intentions to take care of the most valuable counseling tool and vessel I have to offer – myself.
So, in retrospect, what can I share about self care? The first thing is to take it seriously. Take care of yourself first and foremost. Secondly, create strong self care foundation and gift yourself daily in whatever form works for you: meditation, walking, exercise, vacations, resting, writing…anon. Self care is neither passive nor accidental. It takes deliberate, disciplined effort and pre-planning. I am, as I suspect many of us are, really good at saying ‘yes’ and putting my own self to the side in favor of helping others. While this sounds selfless and altruistic, in truth it is detrimental. Learn to say ‘no’ and be comfortable in doing so.
The hardest facet of self care for me is making the necessary time. So many things pull me in so many different directions; family, friends, work, internship, life…anon. Make time and make yourself a priority, your body and mind will thank you in the long run. Equally important, doing your own work and self care offers a real-life model of well-being for your clients. The concept of self care makes sense; the practical application is the hard part. I know for certain I do not want to become the burned out wreckage so full of wasted potential that my peers warned me about such a long time ago and now make the time to plan accordingly. This blog in effect is my heeding call to new graduates, new therapists, old therapists and all who work in the field with individuals and families in whatever capacity, take care of yourself!
Now where did I put that trail map? I am taking the day off on Monday to recharge my own batteries and by golly I’m going to plan carefully this time and the next time and the time after that…
Christian Billington is a counselor in training. He is passionate about end of life issues, grief and loss, trauma and the development of training to better prepare the emergency services for what they experience in the field.