Self-Care seems to be a topic frequently addressed with graduate students and psychologists. We often hear these messages, but at the same time mentally run down a list of things we need to do in our head. Often, these mental lists include assignments, research, clients, family commitments and other professional duties and personal obligations. Many conferences and other gatherings of clinicians offer informative talks about self-care, even stressing that it is an ethical imperative and a duty for clinicians to engage in self-care on a routine basis—and yet, those to-do lists still rise up to defeat our attempts to look after our own needs.
Why do psychologists fair so poorly in caring for themselves? Ironically, many of our life experiences, such as trauma or family dysfunction, which may strengthen our work with patients, simultaneously impair our ability to care for ourselves.
I have heard the same suggestions for self-care over and over: exercise, diet, sleep, vacations, etc. I am not always in agreement on suggesting “standard” self-care because I think each psychologist’s life is unique, and so the self-care strategies will be equally unique. I think it may be important for psychologists to develop five or more main self-care activities, and this list probably should evolve over time. Aspects of this list might include insuring that basic physiological needs are attended to as well as personal therapeutic goals. I have yet to see a standard self-care list state a recent addition to my own list, like “learning to accept your mistakes.” It may be that it is easier for a room full of wounded healers to accept a prescription for physically running versus sitting and thinking about accepting imperfection. A lack of exercise and perfectionism both carry a significant cardiovascular disease burden.
The list we make for our self-care should be portable. What I mean by that is, it should be something we can take with us each day. A vacation to Tahiti every day isn’t feasible, but five minutes of visualization practice certainly is. I may not be able to start a fabulous new diet overhaul today but I can try to abide by a general guideline like asking myself if I would feed the meal I’m about to eat to someone I love.
I do believe that self-care is a vital clinical skill, but it is critically important to look at why it is so difficult for psychologists to consistently achieve. The argument of lack of time is simply not valid—or not the only factor. People filling schedules caring for others without investment in themselves have unaddressed issues of one form or another. These issues are unique for each of us, and a deeper exploration of the reasons for self-neglect may prove to be a worthwhile personal and professional endeavor.
Barnette, J.E. (n.d.). Psychological wellness and self-care as ethical imperative. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/careers/early-career/psychological-wellness.pdf
Rain Blohm, MS
WKPIC Doctoral Intern