Good self-care is a rich package involving more than just getting enough sleep. Self-care involves taking care of yourself both within the context of your helping relationships and in your life outside your work.
The primary question is: What does it take for me to show up for the people I help in a way I feel good about? Give yourself an opportunity to look at your self-care personally and within the therapeutic relationship. Rate yourself in the following areas on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 meaning you are very good at this aspect of self-care.
- Maintaining an appropriate workload
- Creating diversity of expressive, recreational, and spiritual activities
- Developing the ability to both savor and serve
- Setting a high priority on self-care
- Attending to your inner balance
- Getting enough rest and retreat time
- Planning ahead for times of renewal
- Allowing for goof-off time
- Getting adequate physical exercise
- Being kind and compassionate toward yourself
- Approaching people you help with an attitude of curiosity—savoring and being nourished by their essential qualities; feeling gratitude
- Appreciating the value and importance of your professional offerings
- Finding novelty in daily routine and resting in the ease of familiar skillfulness
- Feeling a sense of inner satisfaction and pleasure in your work
- Staying in touch with your desire and vision for service
- Using supervision and personal support
- Keeping appropriate records, disclosure forms, and malpractice insurance
- Knowing, accepting, and accommodating for your limitations
- Seeking and using feedback
- Accessing continuing education that is inspiring, informative, and stimulating
Here’s a little more background on some of the items listed in the self-assessment above:
3. Serving and Savoring
The following quote from E. B. White got me to thinking: “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” Spending some time walking from one pole to the other in my living room, I became clear that, of course, the choice is not between one or the other—saving or savoring—but finding service in savoring and savoring in service. Taken to an extreme, savoring becomes an ineffective and flat self-indulgence, and taken to the other extreme, serving becomes a desperate and burned-out saving the world. Finding ways to savor—your experiences, beauty, integrity—while you are serving will add richness, nourishment, and satisfaction to your experience of service; and finding ways to serve will add meaning and depth to your appreciation of life.
4. Self-Care as a Priority
A student puts it this way: “I just didn’t get the ethics of this until now. Self-care never even got on my priority list. It was like a luxury or a reward for overworking. Now I understand how my lack of self-care seriously disrupts my ability to be present with my clients. So my question is going to be, ‘What does it take for me to show up for my clients in a way that I feel good about?’ For me, at the most basic level, that means having gotten enough sleep, exercise, and meditation.”
10. Being Kind and Compassionate Toward Yourself
Secondary traumatic stress refers to the traumatic stress that can be experienced by caregivers as they work with people in pain and suffering. Sometimes this is referred to as compassion fatigue. It is often unrecognized and under-attended. B. Hudnell Stamm writes: “Secondary traumatic stress makes [a demand] on us: to depart from believing in the illusion that we are protected from other’s pain by scientific postures and our ‘white coats.’ I would not suggest that we leave objectivity behind, but that we recognize that our personal passions drive our desires to do this work and our training and good supervision—of our clinical work, or research, or our teaching—helps us keep our balance and objectivity. Objectivity and flintiness are not a guarantee of our training. Nor should they be. The capacity for compassion and empathy seem to be at the core of our ability to do the work and at the core of our ability to be wounded by the work.”
11. Approaching People You Help with an Attitude of Curiosity
Replacing an anxious “having to know everything” with an attitude of curiosity and attention to what is happening can bring more ease and healing receptiveness for both you and the people you help. Ron Kurtz calls savoring “non-egocentric nourishment.” This is the ability to be nourished by the essential qualities of the people you work with in therapy. This is significantly different from ego pleasure of being a good therapist or making a good intervention or having a great insight. It is a kind of ordinary and transcendent nourishment. It might start with the enjoyment of curiosity and discovery. It might come through seeing the vulnerability or suffering of the other. You are searching for the universal, for the grace and beauty, for some essential good you can see in a person and finding some way you can start to let that fill you up. The people you help will feel your delight and appreciation, and not only will you feel more satisfied and less tired, but your practice will be helping people learn more self-compassion and appreciation.
16. Asking for Support
For helping professionals, asking for help is often felt as a sign of weakness or inadequacy. Think of asking for help as an art. As a colleague said, “Be efficient with your needs. Tell people what you need. Teach people how to leave you alone if they are bugging you. Teach people how to please you if they are taking advantage of you. Teaching can be kind and gentle. The point is to make your needs known in a way they can be met.” When you ask for help and the answer is “no,” ask the person, “If you can’t do this, what could you do?” or, “What part of what I am asking for could you do?” When others ask you for help, practice responding with what, however small, you CAN do, rather than pained excuses for what you can’t do.
18. Knowing Your Limitations
Most often the focus of personal development is on improving in areas of weakness. This is one part of becoming more skillful. But there is another half of skillfulness: accepting and accommodating to limitations. Limitations are important. We all have them. If you are not good at remembering details, it may be more skillful to take time to make clear notes after a session rather than trying to remember things better and getting upset when you don’t. If you know you have a hard time with time boundaries, it may be more skillful to accept this and tell the people you help that you are setting your watch for 10 minutes before the end of the session so it will beep as a reminder to both of you of the time boundary, rather than stressing about going over time.
Once you complete your own personal assessment of how you are doing with your self-care package, I recommend acknowledging the ways you are caring for yourself well. This is a good place to start. Then take a look at the places where you are not doing so well and choose one to three items to make a commitment to improving. Perhaps arrange to check in with someone in a few weeks. The people you help will be all the better for your attention to self-care. Plus, you will likely be happier.
Hudnall Stamm, B. (1995). Secondary Traumatic Stress: Self-Care Issues for Clinicians, Researchers and Educators, Preface, p. 1. Brooklandville, MD: Sidran Press.
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