I remember the first time that self-care came up in our lectures. We were all a bit perplexed about the how-to of it. In a bid to help us get our heads around it, our instructors organised a unit on self-care. We discussed our stress signals and stress relievers and then hit the courts for some endorphin boosting exercise.
I’d like to tell you that after all this, I got it, but if I said that I’d be lying. At the end of the session I did have a good understanding of what self-care was; the rather sensible idea that you can’t help your clients if you’re not in a good head space yourself, but I hadn’t a good sense of what practicing self-care should look like for me.
In hindsight, I can appreciate why I didn’t completely “get'” self-care when it was first introduced. At that point in my training, I had not yet set foot in a therapy room so it was still a bit of an abstract concept in terms of where it fit within my practice as a psychologist, nor was I particularly good at identifying my stress signals, at least not until my immune system – in a last-ditch attempt to send me a smoke signal, packed it in and welcomed in every cold or virus, side-lining me. So it would be fair to say that the how-to of self-care was never going to be an instant click with me!
Thankfully, I “get” the how-to of self-care now. What changed? Well, the process of doing a PhD in clinical psychology and all the juggling it entailed was a steep learning curve. Somewhere between attending classes, coursework and placement; devising, recruiting for, running, analysing and writing up studies, and working at the same time, I learned what my limits were and devised my own personal stress management tool kit.
For me, my self-care tool kit consists of music, dance, and spending time with friends and loved ones. For others it could include jogging, trashy TV, walks by the beach or baking. I might not get my self-care routine perfectly right all the time – does anyone? – but I’ve found one that works for me, helping me to do my work as a therapist, PhD student and employee while also keeping me happy.
While it wouldn’t have been a bad thing if self-care was something I instantly connected with, I’m not sorry it was more of a gradual learning process for me. In fact, it’s really useful in therapy. I’m more aware the pitfalls that arise when trying out things like behavioural activation (scheduling rewarding activities to boost and maintain your mood) and different ways to explain how it works and why it matters. Maybe you’ve experienced this yourself and found something that comes easier to you is far harder to explain than something that took more time or practice?