People who care for others with all the strength, wisdom, courage and compassion that takes can sometimes struggle to prioritise their own needs and direct compassion towards themselves. Our mind is the tool we use for the work we do, so it’s vital we get the balance right. In other words, self-care for therapists is essential. After all, people are depending on us for their wellbeing.
Therapy as ‘Humanitarian Work’
Last year, I attended an event for therapists called ‘A Real-Treat’ hosted by the inspirational Dr Mary Welford and Dr Debroah Lee. As a side note, they are running it again in 2020 and I’d highly recommend it. Find out more here.
Deborah describes the work therapists do as ‘humanitarian work’.
Allow the gravity of this statement to sink in. How does it make you feel? Do you think it will alter your approach to looking after yourself?
As a therapist, you can also consider yourself an investigator, exploring other people’s minds with curiosity, helping them make new connections and encouraging changes in their lives. This requires great cognitive flexibility.
Feeling safe and calm is a pre-requisite for this. When we feel stressed, overwhelmed or threatened, our thinking narrows which is unhelpful for exploration and investigation. So, in order to be in the best possible place to help heal others, we need to be led by the quote ‘you have to put your own oxygen mask on first’.
Therapists Need Self-Compassion Too
I’ve never been great at self-care. It was only when my body forced me to that I made it a priority. Over the last few years, I’ve developed not one, but two chronic health conditions. It’s not been easy and I’m still on a journey with it all. Luckily, as well as being a CBT Therapist, I’m also trained in CFT.
CFT is shaped by two psychologies. The first is about developing the ability to turn towards difficulty, and the second is about having the motivation, strength and wisdom to alleviate that difficultly.
As therapists, we have a responsibility to look after ourselves, especially as we are called on to support people at their most difficult times. There are two humans in the therapy room and modelling self-compassion to others is an important part of our role.
Practicing self-compassion is a way of giving you the edge as a therapist. It’s not a treat or selfish – it’s an important requirement when you’re supporting others to heal. You deserve it and your clients do too.
Simple Self-Care for Therapists
Stop, slow down, and create more space.
Ask yourself ‘what do you need?’ What is best for your wellbeing in this moment?
Take time to explore how you’re holding what you hear.
Learn when it’s time to stop and take a break. What signals do you need to look out for?
Know what nourishes and restores you. Identify the activities that help you release tension and reduce stress. Make them a priority.
Detox from therapy or self-help books and start reading fiction.
Spend time in nature away from the office.
Develop a writing practice. One of the reasons I created The CBT Journal is because writing can help us process difficulty and gain more clarity over situations. When you are on your own and supervision isn’t for another week, get your pen and write it out.
Spend time with other therapists, friends and family. Connection is one of the key requirements for wellbeing. While we are with people every day at work, therapists need to focus on connecting beyond their client list.
Make time to laugh a lot.
Read through your thank you cards.
Allow yourself to be imperfectly human.
Be ruthlessly self compassionate.
Therapy and Supervision
When simple self-care isn’t enough, I’m a big advocate for therapists going for therapy. This isn’t a requirement in CBT like it is in other therapy models, but I believe it’s vital. As well as benefitting your mental health, you’ll also supercharge your therapist powers. Being in the other chair has been an invaluable learning experience for me.
Every therapist should also be having regular clinical supervision. Although this process is designed to help you in the delivery of clinical skills, it also takes into consideration your personal experiences inside and outside of the therapy room. Ask yourself whether you feel safe enough with your supervisor to talk about your own needs and receive support. If not, additional supervision or a new supervisor may be beneficial, although I appreciate this is sometimes dictated by the services people work in.