Therapists Need Self-Care Too

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Anyone in a caring capacity – parent, caregiver, partner, teacher, therapist, etc. – can benefit from self-care.  Self-care is simply attending to your own needs, and making sure that they are met.  Yet it is a term fraught with guilt – we live in a scarcity society, and an automatic thought that occurs when self-care is suggested is an accounting thought.  “If I give care to myself, then I will not have the time to give to others.”  This mindset is incorrect – in fact, the more we meet our own needs, the more we will be rested and rejuvenated to care for others as well.

Self-care is related to self-compassion.  Researcher Kristen Neff, PhD, is considered an expert in this area, and differentiates the two concepts as: self-compassion is the attitude towards oneself, and self-care is the actions that we perform related to this attitude.  Detailing the components of self-compassion include self-kindness, instead of self-judgment; understanding that there is a common humanity, instead of isolation; and mindfulness instead of over-identification.  When we embody these attributes, of self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness, we are better able to attend to our needs, to address ourselves without contempt or criticism, and to appreciate the role that we play for those that receive our care on a daily basis.

So what happens when a helping professional or nurturer chooses to ignore the need for self-care?  We become burnt out, apathetic, and physically sick.  We are overwhelmed with the demands of others, and because we are not meeting our own demands, we start to emotionally shut down, closing in on the very attributes that drive the core of our careers.  We become self-critical, hard on ourselves for our shortcomings, and this criticism seeps out into our interactions with others.  Friends, family members, and co-workers may notice, and start to turn away, creating more isolation.  Our bodies respond, and we become physically ill.  In fact, medical doctors agree, that our bodies send us signals when we are stressed, and the physical symptoms, including immune differences, digestive issues, muscle tension, high blood pressure, and more, will force us to slow down if we don’t listen.

Despite this knowledge, self-care is still difficult.  Misconceptions about what self-care is contributes to this difficulty.  Self-care is viewed as selfish – though in reality, it builds resilience so we are better able to cope and care for others.  We aren’t used to setting limits and we take on too much, making it difficult to set and adhere to boundaries, a critical component of self-care.  We are used to being in a different role, the role of caregiver, so to receive care can feel foreign.  We also can feel shame, a unique experience for a helping professional grappling with self-care.  To have our own mental health and caregiving needs may make us feel ashamed, as though we are unable to help others, since we cannot even help ourselves.

Luckily, we know we aren’t alone.  Through community, support, and collaboration, we are increasingly learning that we all have a level of difficulty attending to our needs, and the need for self-care.  We are learning from our professional peers about self-care, balance, boundaries and support.  Consider Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and take a pyramid approach.  First, are you getting enough sleep? Enough nutrition?  Enough exercise?  Do you have professional support, a community to turn to for tricky cases and consultation needs?  Are your spiritual needs met?  Do you feel that you are fulfilling the career path that you were meant to be on?  Take inventory of all areas of your life, and identify where there may be room for improvement in self-care.

We all strive to provide the best care for our clients and those that we provide care to.  Consider this your official recommendation – a part of that high quality care means self-care, too.

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