As any therapist will tell you, self-care is an integral part of our work. When we take care of ourselves, we take care of our clients. But what does practicing self-care look like, exactly? Here, three therapists share their own perspectives on self-care, as well as a few tips you might enjoy trying out for yourself.
1) A Gift We Give Ourselves
When I first met the woman who’d eventually become my wife, one of the things she appreciated most about me was that I genuinely cared about others. I’d give the shirt off my back and every dollar in my pocket to help someone in need. So it surprised me later in our relationship, when, after a long and exhausting day of seeing clients, she told me that if we got married, I’d have to scale back. I hadn’t learned to develop healthy boundaries yet. If I gave too much to my clients, she worried, there wouldn’t be anything left for her as a partner, or myself, for that matter. It made sense. This conversation was the beginning of a long, continuous journey of learning how to give in a more balanced way.
As a marriage and family therapist, I give my clients the benefits of my training, my time and energy, and my genuine empathy to help them grow. While we might learn the nuts and bolts of therapy in grad school, what isn’t often discussed is the physical and emotional toll this work can take on us. We simply can’t solve every problem our clients bring to us.
I’ve come a long way in learning to temper my emotional investment in my clients, but I’ll admit that I sometimes forget to set boundaries when someone asks for help that will stretch me too far. In these moments, I try to catch myself and remember that no matter how legitimate the need, and no matter how genuine my desire to help, if I give more than I can offer today, I’ll not only have less to offer the next client tomorrow, but also my family and myself.
There was a time when self-care felt selfish to me. But now, I realize that it helps me meet my clients’ needs. It keeps me from burning out, keeps me able to do this work. Contrary to how it might feel at first, setting limits and boundaries isn’t callous, nor is it a rejection of our clients. Rather, it’s a loving gift that ensures I can keep helping my clients today and for years to come.
Lambers Fisher, MS, LMFT, MDIV
St. Paul, MN
2) A Wish in the Darkest Moments
I like to scribble and dribble. That is, throughout my life, two of my favorite activities have been writing and playing basketball. Whether times are good or bad, I love putting thoughts to paper. In the aftermath of my darkest moments, like my father’s passing, I’ve spent hours alone on cracked-cement basketball courts shooting countless foul shots at tilted, netless rims. Every shot taken with an elbow bent and wrist cocked is a fluid, meditative motion that sharpens my concentration, builds muscle memory, and settles me internally. Every shot made is a harbinger of a better future.
Because of the coronavirus, right now there’s yellow caution tape closing off the gate to the basketball court at the schoolyard where I practice. The local YMCA is temporarily closed too. So now, I’m spending even more time getting my meditative moments through my computer keyboard. With elbows bent and wrists steady, I lose myself in the flow of words, the music of phrases. Over the last few weeks, I’ve cranked out a steady stream of hopefully useful short articles for publication, about how families can better cope with this pandemic.
I applaud myself for trying to do a little good during this horrible time, but I also know that writing is my self-care, sharpening my concentration and bringing me internal peace. Like a basketball launched from my hand, every sentence is a wish.
Barry Jacobs, PsyD
3) Telling Yourself, “I’m Worth It”
I’ve been in practice for almost 10 years, specializing in the treatment of anxiety. There are some misconceptions about self-care—that it’s just a trend, that it’s a chore—but really, self-care is a big part of taking care of our mental health. Simply put, it’s taking the intentional time to focus on yourself and say, “I’m worth it. I’m valuable.”
Self-care means different things to different people. It extends to multiple realms—physical, emotional, and spiritual. But it doesn’t have to be a visit to the spa or a week-long vacation—a lot of people don’t have the time or money for that. Everyone can find ways to restore themselves. Self-care can be as simple as listening to a favorite song or as elaborate as blocking off a day to do activities you enjoy, like planning a game night with family members or an online happy hour with friends. It might also be something that most people wouldn’t consider pleasant but sets you up for success down the road, like organizing emails or doing the dishes. For some people, those can be relaxing activities.
Here’s my self-care routine: I’m not especially strict about it, but when I wake up, I try not to check my phone. I take a few minutes of quiet time for myself. Since I’m the parent of a young child, that quiet space where I can gather my thoughts is especially valuable to me. I also like to have a cup of coffee or tea with breakfast. It gets my day started on a positive note.
In my work with clients, I’m always trying to help them regain control in their lives and take better care of themselves, instead of being overly anxious or self-critical. That can be especially tough right now, but I advise my clients, as much as they can, to put work aside and spend quality time with family and friends, to take just a few minutes out of their day to do some breathing or muscle relaxation. Plan for self-care in your schedule. Do whatever you can to capture those little bits of joy.
Alicia Hodge, PsyD
National Harbor, MD
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Topic: Professional Development