Most of us in the behavioral health field have a well-developed speech in our back pocket about the value of self-care. We’ve argued the importance of regular practice so many times, we can recite it by heart.
You can’t pour from an empty cup
, we say.
You’ll be no good to anyone else if you don’t care for yourself first
, we maintain.
And then many of us go home to our full, busy lives and our wise words get left at the office, somewhere between the notes we’re trying to catch up on and the voicemails we need to return.
It’s easy for us in the helping professions to become so wrapped up in the needs of others that we start to actually dismiss our own mandates about self-care. It’s nice for everyone else, we tell ourselves, but I just don’t have the time or energy.
And yet, if anyone needs to practice self-care, it’s those who are caring for the well-being of others. For one, serving others requires immense reserves of energy. And as most of us know, it’s not the type of work we can do half-heartedly. We simply cannot sustain our work in an effective and ethical way while suffering stress, exhaustion, and burnout.
And second, whether or not we believe those in our care are aware, we are modeling to the world around us what it means to nourish and honor one’s self. Our actions will speak far louder than our pithy remarks.
So that’s all well and good, right? But what does self-care for a clinician even look like? And where do we fit it in between the varied demands?
Here are some strategies that you might consider:
Recognize that burnout is not a part of the job description.
Some of us have internalized the idea that we are burnt out because it is hard work to give of ourselves to others with such deep challenges. Of course, it is hard work. Deeply meaningful and
hard. But burnout is not a natural response to hard work. Burnout is a sign of overwork and excessive and prolonged stress. If you are experiencing burnout, that’s a sign that there is work to be done in evaluating your demands, your approach, and self-care.
Take quality time away from your work.
A vacation in which you are attached to your cell phone to be available for patient emergencies is simply not a vacation. True restoration comes from being able to transition your mind fully into rest and rejuvenation. And yes, I know how difficult this can be in certain settings and systems, but I strongly encourage you to look for ways to be truly unavailable.
Build a schedule that works for all aspects of your life.
We’re in the helping field, and we want to be accessible and available when people need us. But if you have control over your own schedule, ensure that you are considering not just when you think is most convenient for your patients, but also what is going to allow you to maintain the quality of life you need to be happy and effective.
Get a change of scenery several times per day.
For those in private practice especially, the inside of your office can become like the twilight zone. Schedule breaks in your day that are long enough to step outside for fresh air or take a walk around the block. It’s amazing what an energy boost it can be to spend five minutes chatting with colleagues or hearing the sounds of the outdoors.
Develop rituals for transition points in your day.
One of the most personally effective tools I’ve found is to start and end my work day with one-sentence journaling. This simply means at the start of my day, no matter what, I write one sentence about what I want to let go of as I transition into my work, and I do the same as I’m leaving. If I don’t do this, I notice that the lunch I forgot to pack my son is dancing around in my head all morning or the helplessness I feel in supporting that patient travels home with me.
Whatever your practices and rituals are to preserve your wellbeing, protect them at all costs. They will be your lifeline when you most need them. And of course, consider working with your own therapist or supervisor/mentor as additional support. Remember, you can’t pour from an empty cup!
How are you filling your cup today?
Ashley Solomon, PsyD is Director of Clinical Outreach at Eating Recovery Center, Ohio.
For more on this topic, read: Self-Compassion: Why it’s Important and How to Practice