Self-care was talked about tremendously during my degree program. Like therapy, it was an abstract process that would become perfectly clear once a thriving career was established. Like every other clinician, I would not be the clinician that would end up being burnout because I had the necessary knowledge to make better choices. Self-care and burnout were these extreme opposite sides of a coin; and the latter only happened to clinicians who were not in tuned with themselves. In my degree program, we were constantly told that we needed to be sure to practice our own methods of self-care, the more regular our routine was, the more optimal it would be for us. Yet, after entering the counseling field as a clinician, I have found that this necessary practice is far more challenging than was discussed. I began to recognize that what was being taught was only half the picture. As clinicians, we are constantly bombarded with these reminders of practicing self-care, but I discovered that the steps and struggles of effective self-care are not always included in this information. Additionally, in my time of practicing as a clinician, many of the clinicians that I have come in contact with are working in multiple agencies and locations; this means that our work days are usually extremely long before we even make it home. Taking into consideration the busyness of our lives, how many clinicians stop to think about self-care on any given day. I realized that if anything, rather than being helpful, the reminders were only speaking at us. They may even induce feelings of shame and guilt because we are not always able to fit self-care into our days for various reasons. As individuals, we are socialized to take care of others before ourselves. And as clinicians, we are trained even more to consider others and their feelings; we spend our days being caretakers to others and naturally, it is difficult for us to turn off that switch to then be able to focus on ourselves and our own needs. Even if we are constantly hearing whispers or shouts about self-care.
Self-care, if not already an avid personal practice, requires work and commitment like everything else. It is not something that just happens organically as much as we would prefer that it did. As the saying goes: you get what you put in. Over the last year, my schedule has become very hectic as I have focused on achieving my clinical hours and pursuing other dreams that I have in mind. I decided to write about self-care because it is a topic that I am constantly struggling with as is any other clinician. Like the individual in this picture, I had to take a look at my life, examine how I spent my days, what my goals were, and was my busyness in line with the goals I had laid out for myself? I also had to realize that I had to ensure I had the mental and physical energy to get through my week because after a few months on my new schedule, I realized that I was depleting myself and waiting to get to Friday to refresh. I knew that this was no way to live. I wanted to look forward to my sessions and my clients and not feel drained and exhausted, especially while seeing clients back-to-back. I learnt that I had to really focus on becoming intentional with my days. This really changed the way I thought about self-care.
I know that there are others like myself, who when self-care is brought up, immediately think of grand things, such as going to get a massage, going out to a movie or a dinner, or at least things that lasted at least about an hour. This of course made me feel overwhelmed when I looked at my new schedule and tried to figure out where I would be able to cram an hour of self-care in a day, or even a week. It’s great when there is time to treat myself to things such as these, but I realized they had to be planned well in advance and I also had to consider what my needs were. Another lesson that I discovered was that self-care should be tailored to the needs that I was having. This is something no one had ever shared with me. Sometimes all I needed was just to have 30 minutes of quiet time to reflect on my thoughts or to just sit with myself and not be a clinician, a wife, a mother, or a daughter, I just needed to be me. Sometimes, I was drained and needed to get out of my environment and be out with nature or in the sunshine breathing in fresh air, rather than being stuck at a desk or in an office with circulated air; sometimes, I just needed time with my husband, or time with my children. As a clinician, I have learnt that our bodies and our minds slows us down when we have a need that is not being met. But oftentimes, we are too busy to listen and so those needs continue to pile up, and our busyness overshadows our needs, but it does not resolve those needs. This is why self-care should be paramount for everyone.
Lori Puterbaugh in her May 2015 article highlighted that some individuals may misconstrue recreation for self-care. I have to admit that I did not necessarily consider this when thinking of practices to utilize within my self-care routine, but I think Lori highlights a great issue here. Self-care is supposed to increase awareness and encourage self-reflection. Self-care is supposed to be utilized to encourage us to delve into our feelings and thoughts and assess those needs that could be replenished and refreshed allowing us to come back feeling renewed and sane. My thought is that self-care is supposed to increase insight and awareness. Lori noted that self-care activities conducted that allow for no real time for self-reflection is really just a superficial act, which I concur with.
As mental health professionals, we are tasked with conducting useful and authentic self-care regimens that allow us to shed our emotional baggage and re-center ourselves so that we are able to be present when we come to our sessions. By minimizing the importance of self-care or superficially participating in it, we are not only cheating our clients or families, but also ourselves. Research has proven the validity and usefulness of self-care. For myself, this is a very crucial issue; if I am finding myself having similar talks with my clients about the importance of caring for themselves so that they can care for their loved ones, why would I cheat myself out of something so important?
For my own self-care, I have just tried to find simple ways that I can take time in small increments. I use my weekend mornings to journal and reflect on my week and my upcoming week. I set an exercise schedule every week and work to stick to it. A few days out of my week, I work to incorporate a 10-minute meditation session. I try to also create a weekly menu plan for to help to avoid skipping lunch because I am too busy or constantly eating out for lunch and dinner. Of course every week is not easy, I try to allow myself flexibility and space and recognize there may be weeks where I fall short, but having compassion for myself to recognize that because I failed at something, does not mean that I cannot try it again the next week. I have also learnt that I need to start my day off with quiet time, so I use my morning drive to work to list 3 daily things that I am grateful for to help me get in a healthy mental space for the day and I use that time to talk to myself and God and list the things I have on my mind and the things I am avoiding that needs my attention. Over the last few months, the biggest change that I have employed has been accepting help. As a mother and a wife, it has been my pride and joy in running my household but with the changes in my professional life, I have had to accept more help from my partner. I have also had to work at my own issues to recognize that accepting help does not make me any weaker, if anything it makes me stronger for recognizing my limitations. After all, are these not the same issues that I work with my clients on?
With my clients, especially mothers, I see their struggle with this and this is a universal issue for caregivers, because we have been socialized to give everything to everyone, and that any form of selfishness is negative and unbecoming. When I speak with my clients about what replenishes them, they are unsure because they have never even realized that they needed to replenish themselves and that they were allowed to do this. I encourage them to participate in self-care just as much as I encourage myself to do it. Self-care is a practice for everyone because in our own way, we give to those in our environments; therefore, t is necessary to replenish ourselves.
Charmaine Perry is a counselor who works mostly with adults and couples in central New Jersey. Her passion is mental health and writing and finding ways to incorporate these two fields to advocate for mental health services for African and Caribbean Americans.