Self care – it’s no joke!

I have been under the weather since Sunday afternoon.  It started as “allergies”, and has now progressed to a full blown chest cold.  I am not accustomed to having to slow down my daily pace due to unforeseen sickness, and it has really made me look at the way that I make choices and take care of myself (the short answer is: often, not very well!!).

When we are forced to “stop and smell the roses” (bad metaphor…I can’t smell anything!), we must take a look at our lifestyle choices in ways that we might feel we don’t have time for in our daily busy schedule.  For instance, sleep has been an important factor in trying to battle this body-invading cold.  I realize that I often glaze over the healing powers of sleep, because somewhere along the way I got the idea that taking naps was a “waste of time”.  By listening to my body’s strong urges to get some rest this week, I have benefitted from the rejuvenating and invigorating healing powers that something as natural as sleep has gifted me.  I was also forced to call in sick to an important job this week, and I went through the usual feelings of guilt that typically accompany my saying “no”.  However, when the reason that I needed to say no was to take the time to relax and give myself a break, why must I feel guilty about that?

This leads me to wonder why self care has gotten so far down on my list of time-worthy tasks.  As a counselor, I have learned through coursework and through the guidance of teachers and supervisors that self care is a MUST in this profession.  Burn out, soaring levels of stress and anxiety, and decreasing levels of mental health are only a few of the consequences that may occur when therapists do not offer themselves the same care and affirmation that they gives their clients.  It seems simple: in order to be able to help clients find their way to happiness and change through acceptance and support, a therapist should be able to model those very qualities him or herself.  But all too often, we overlook our own needs in the face of demanding jobs, competitive markets, and devaluing our own desire for peace.  This week I have found that in order to get past this and to move forward with my career and my life, I must take the time to care for myself.  It is ironic in a way, that my body should physically break down before I notice this, and that when I push myself too far it definitely lets me know that I need to slow down.

Why can’t we slow down and listen to what we need?  Not only therapists, but doctors, lawyers, health care workers, teachers, parents, and anyone who meets high demands each and every day — we all struggle to put our self care high on the list.  I think that a big piece of this puzzle is being able to listen to your body.  As I have written before, the mind and the body are deeply connected and they will tell us when we need to turn our attention inward.  Last week a friend was celebrating her birthday and when I called her to wish her a happy birthday, she told me that she was having a good day but that her shoulders were very tight and tense.  I suggested that she get a massage, and it took me several minutes of convincing her that she deserved to do this (her body was yelling at her to get one!)….not just because it was her birthday but because her muscles were carrying all of the stress that she was feeling.  We don’t have to wait for the “excuse” of a special day to allow ourselves a kind break.

I think that sometimes self care can take on the pretense of feeling indulgent or selfish.  I argue the exact opposite.  When we are in the helping profession, it may be unethical to meet our clients in a state of anxiety, stress and tension.  What would we be modeling to them?  Not only is it healthy to take baths, take vacations, go out for a celebratory dinner, or whatever else you like to do for self care, our jobs require that we do these things because of the challenging subject matter that we work with every day.  We are in our profession because we live to help people, to listen to their stories and to support them in finding peace and love in their own lives.  However, we cannot help them to the best of our ability if the problems we hear each day weigh us down.

So, as I have learned this week (it took a debilitating cold to teach me!), it is a necessity that we engage in self care activities.  We must put ourselves as a priority and be comfortable with saying no when need be.  Schedule at least thirty minutes of self care each day.  Read a book that you love, take a walk with your partner, go to the park and admire the changing leaves, take a hike in the mountains, go out to dinner with your sister.  Our families, clients, partners, and most importantly – YOU – depend on it!!

…I’m going to go spend some time with my dog now 🙂