Certainly, most psychotherapists love what they do, but the work can also be isolating, overwhelming, emotionally draining, and relentless—sometimes, all at once! In these moments, practicing self-care isn’t just important, it’s essential to making sure we bring our best selves to our work. But what does self-care look like, exactly? Here, three therapists share what it means to them.
1) Self-Care Doesn’t Always Come Easy
There was a time when I didn’t practice what I preached when it came to self-care. As an eating disorder specialist in a residential treatment facility, I co-lead groups on mindful eating. I’d read aloud from mindful-eating books, telling my clients, serenely, “Take your time…. Notice the taste of your food in your mouth.… Note how you feel.” Yet in reality, outside of work, I ate with hardly any self-awareness. The moment group ended, I’d hastily cram junk food in my mouth so I could make it to my next appointment.
It was the same with other forms of self-care. I knew about the therapeutic benefits of yoga and recommended it to every client in my private practice, but I’d never even tried it. I proclaimed that self-care was paramount to well-being, but had no self-care plan for myself.
Then, one day my world came crashing down when I unexpectedly lost my 28-year-old son. Self-care was no longer a luxury; it was crucial to my continued existence. If I was to function as a therapist, I had to figure out ways to manage my own distress and pain.
I reduced my work schedule. I took the time to write a book about him and me, highlighting my feelings around grief and loss. Looking back, I was doing narrative therapy on myself. Once the book was published, I was ready to refocus on my practice and how I’d utilize the good advice I’d been giving others. Now, I describe self-care as a combo meal. You get to pick something from each column: Something to Do with Your Hands, A Mental Exercise, A Physical Exercise, Something Fun, and Something Educational.
Here’s the menu I created for myself: I either knit or cook, depending on my mood and the season. I love crossword puzzles, and recently discovered that jigsaw puzzles also do the trick. I love games like mahjong because they force me to socialize, even when I might want to isolate myself. I swim, walk, and—finally—do yoga. And I blend my fun and educational columns by meeting friends at conferences that offer both play time and serious learning. By day, we learn from the field’s experts. By night, we share lovely dinners. When I’m in DC for the Networker Symposium, I’ll even sneak out of a workshop early to take in the national monuments at dusk.
Fran Gerstein, LCSW
2) Do a Mental Detox
If I could describe self-care in one word, it would be grounded. In order to manage the chaos that comes from holding other people's psychic pain, I need to be actively grounded in being myself, particularly, in my physical body. The issues I deal with—addiction, power dynamics, relational betrayals—are heavy and can be highly toxic, so I find I must approach the work well-rested, resolute, and ready to face the challenges it brings. I also try to stay conscious of my workload and keep it manageable. Early in my career, I realized that to best serve the individuals and families I treat, I must keep my practice small. For me, that means holding no more than 10 sessions a week.
Outside of the professional realm, I have a daily mediation and exercise routine. I'm conscious about the food I consume. More recently, I've become more conscious about the media messages I allow into my psyche. We’re living in an era of nonstop media streams, and it can be venomous to our emotional well-being. That’s why I limit the time I spend on social media and watching the news.
Grounding also includes constantly recalibrating myself to a place of intention rather than reaction. Every morning, I write about the various ways I can be of service to humankind and the environment. Then, I move into action. This service may be as simple as picking up a stray piece of trash littering the sidewalk outside my office or as complicated as helping a couple navigate the betrayal of an infidelity.
Paul Hokemeyer, JD, PhD
New York, NY
3) Getting Out of Your Bubble
As a clinician specializing in EMDR, I’m honored to wade into the darkest weeds with my clients. In order to do so, I take my clients’ and my own self-care very seriously. Doing exercise like yoga, running, and walking, as well as listening to music—which takes me places that words can’t—are cultivated practices that allow me to access parts of my brain that provide balance.
Spending time with like-minded people is also a large part of my self-care repertoire. I host two salons in my city, where attendees gather to enjoy music or something related to the humanities. I also sing in two choirs, and regularly perform on my own.
Recently, I joined up with a group of 20 singers in Sicily, where we rehearsed choral music for six hours a day for five days, then performed three concerts in gorgeous Italian cathedrals. The music, camaraderie, adventure, food (with lots of wine!), and cultural experiences filled up my emotional tank, making me eager to return to work and wade back into the weeds.
Carol Solberg Moss, LCSW
Photo © iStock/electravk
Topic: Professional Development