I wrote very recently about self-care through a professional lens as a means of reflecting on my practicum experience and how envision self-care as I move through this new path as a counsellor and psychologist; it seems only appropriate to share that here. Or at least of version of it…
A quick search for #selfcare on Instagram yields 13.8 million posts leading to a slew of meme-worthy and often reductionist understandings of self-care. As a culture we talk endlessly about self-care and many of my clients have come to consult with a goal of ‘understanding self-care’ or ‘figure out why my self-care routine isn’t working’.
To be honest, I count myself among them. I too am a self-care meme seeker, hoping I can break down this stupefying practice into something doable, tangible, and easy. When we bring self-care into our professional and personal discussions we touch gently, but indecisively on exercise, good sleep hygiene, and time with loved ones. I talk about boundaries and saying ‘no’, but in the moments when I am overwhelmed, I’m not sure ‘setting boundaries’ means anything more than or has a greater impact on me than getting my nails done. I LOVE getting my nails done.
And I am going to say something here because I think so often we actively shy away from talking about this kind of thing… we use euphemisms and generalizations but we don’t name always name it… Why? Fear? Do we worry what our clients will think? Well, I am going to let you in on a little secret:
Some people, even psychologists and parents and clients, have sex. Some people don’t have sex too.
For me, in the moments of true stress, the only thing that brings me immediate relief from what I term big feelings is sex. Why? Because during sex I feel present and embodied. When I am with a person I trust and value for more than immediate pleasure, I am free. Even if it’s only for 20 minutes… More about sex below.
BUT sex isn’t possible every time big feelings show up. I know, it sucks!
So, what do we actually do? How do we actually take care of ourselves in all of this hard work when we’re deep in all this hard work? How do halt burnout before we begin this next phase of our careers? Best I have come up with is intentionality in four areas: the good stuff, professional development, moving, and vulnerability.
The good stuff:
Much of the #selfcare we think about is what I call the good stuff: massage, a nice meal, getting my nails done, sex, and other distractions. I am interested in all that good stuff. What has shifted through this work is the good stuff has become more significant and intentional in its pursuit. I schedule a massage and getting my nails done, and I have alarms on my phone to remind me to wash my face and brush my teeth. I make sure I manage distraction time within my schedule, so I don’t feel guilty – guilt feels like the opposite of self-care. I relish moments of intimacy as self-care; human connection away from trauma and the ‘problem’ stories.
We often struggle to speak openly about sexuality and sexual activity, but I believe that sexual activity, solo or partnered, can be an important part of self-care, particularly when it feels like what Nagoski (2015) terms safe haven sex. Safe haven sex is sex that brings us home again and reconnects us with ourselves and our partner(s) in a way that closes the loop on stress (Nagoski, 2015). I also bring sex and self-care into the conversation with clients when it’s appropriate and they feel comfortable talking about it.
When viewing self-care through a lens of professional development, reflective consultation with peers has become one of the most important points of self-care throughout these last two terms. In addition to the licensing requirements related to professional development, because those exist, I cannot conceptualize a way through this career with colleagues, peers, and mentors to discuss with and vent with, as a part of professional and personal development. I was particularly struck by Miller, Hubble, & Mathieu (2015) and their research demonstrating the value in preventing burnout by focusing on progress and skill building. This feels like valuable knowledge to bring into my professional life with me.
I have to move my body vigorously and I have to do it more often. Nagoski (2015) talks about completing the circuit when it comes to stress in order to effectively discharge its energy and impacts. She argues that exercise is the best way to do this (Nagoski, 2015), and I couldn't agree with her more. I have no science to back up my feelings, but client stress seems to live in my upper body while my own stress seems to live in my hips and legs. Moving my body vigorously (exercise) has significant self-care and human body maintenance benefits for me. Even in this exact moment I am aware of my body’s desire to move.
Recently, a client who struggles with the kind of mental illness we wouldn’t wish on our worst enemies shared that Tai Chi was one of the things that got him through the worst days and his times in hospital. So I downloaded an app to learn Tai Chi. Why not? Clients can teach us self care too!
Asking for help is hard – we know that, and we praise our clients for it. Setting boundaries is hard – we know that, and we praise our clients for it. Being vulnerable is hard…
These things are hard for me. Very hard. But they are my biggest self-care goals. I know if I do not actively work to incorporate these things into my life I will burn out and I will not make it back from the beyond. I have to ask for help, and I have to take it when offered.
Linking it all back to Instagram and #selfcare I recently saw a meme that ‘rung my bell’: