Editor’s note: Ashley Davis Bush, LICSW is a psychotherapist in private practice with over twenty years experience. She is the author of six self-help books, including Simple Self-Care for Therapists: Restorative Practices to Weave Through Your Workday. Ashley’s continuing education presentation for GoodTherapy, titled “A New Approach to Self-Care: The Ethical Imperative of Daily Restoration” is available as a homestudy course at no additional cost to Premium and Pro GoodTherapy Members (Basic Members and mental health professionals without membership can view this course for $14.95). This homestudy course is good for two CE credits. For details, or to register, please click here.
Sitting with a group of colleagues, having just finished our monthly consultation group, I blurted out the question, “How do you feel about self-care?” At the time, I was researching and writing a book about self-care for therapists, so this question was very much on my mind.
I fielded a range of responses from, “I know it’s important but I don’t have the time,” to “I’m in this field to take care of others, not myself!” Over the next few months, as I polled my colleagues, I heard these themes of conflict and time constraints repeated many times.
I began to realize and assert with increasing vigor that it’s time to change our approach to self-care. Not only do we have to address the practical roadblocks to self-care but also the ethical quandary that allows self-sacrifice to undermine good therapy.
Ethically speaking, it’s important to understand that taking care of yourself is taking care of your clients (and your family and friends.) I have been a lifelong singer, and I remember when a voice teacher told me, “You are the instrument. You have to take care of your body or otherwise you won’t have a voice to share.”
Ashley Davis Bush, LICSW
Being a therapist is not unlike being a singer—you are the instrument of healing. Whether you employ CBT, DBT, EMDR, or EFT, it’s the therapeutic relationship itself, as we well know, that is the tool for healing. It’s your presence and your personal resonance that create the relational environment for healing. If we don’t take care of ourselves in mind, body, and spirit, we can’t take care of others.
Consider how we are compromised when we are overworked and burned out, depleted and compassionately fatigued, numbed and vicariously traumatized. If we don’t replenish and restore ourselves, if we don’t take self-care seriously, we’re not doing our best clinical work.
If we don’t take care of ourselves in mind, body, and spirit, we can’t take care of others. So given that self-care is not only vital but an ethical imperative, how do we realistically fit it into our busy, overworked schedules? It’s not like we can drop everything and book a monthly vacation or even a weekly massage. How can we practically engage in self-care and give it the priority it deserves in our lives and in our careers?
One answer is to microtize self-care. What does this mean? It means to engage in small habits in our daily lives that have a big impact on our well-being. Advances in neuroplasticity underscore this successful strategy: Small repetitive practices matter, both in creating new neural networks in our brains and in creating sustainable self-care.
Practically, it can be as simple as ‘shrinking down’ the macro–self-care activities and practices that you already love into their most powerful essences. For example, you might not be able to get to a yoga class today, but you can benefit from the stretch and relaxation of one power-pose between sessions. You might not be able to schedule a full body massage today, but you can realize the benefits of myofascial release by massaging your feet with a tennis ball before you go home.
Here are a few more ideas to get you started:
- You love to read but don’t have time to dive into a novel: Keep a book of poetry nearby that you can flip through between sessions.
- You love to take long walks in the woods but don’t have time for that right now: Do a march-in-place exercise and add 10 jumping jacks to get your blood flowing.
- You want to do long meditations but never seem to have the time: Set your timer for a one-minute. A brief moment of mindfully focusing on your breath is a powerful form of relaxation.
- You can’t wait to go on vacation, but don’t have anything scheduled for months: Spend a minute looking at photographs of places that you long to visit (look online or in a travel magazine).
- You’ve gotten triggered in a session and want to go outside for fresh air: Reengage your dual awareness with a deep belly breath and then lengthen your spine by imagining a string pulling your head upward.
Less really is more. Once you get into the habit of using micro–self-care practices throughout the day, every day, you’ll notice that you start to feel replenished on a regular basis. The process begins first with the realization that self-care is your ethical obligation, and second with the intention of making self-care a daily priority. With this approach, you honor the importance of self-care in your professional life and you make it happen.
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