Self-Care: The Vanquisher of Distress

“The heart pumps blood to itself, before the rest of the body.”

In the previous blog, we discussed self-care and how it ought to be made essential for a practicing psychologist. Self-care is defined as the behaviours and actions taken to increase one’s mental and physical well-being and resilience. Self-care helps in increasing a therapist’s competence as it models healthy behaviour for the client, enhances self-esteem and confidence, expands the therapist’s reservoir of empathy, and reduces the occupational hazards of compassion fatigue, emotional burnout, and vicarious trauma. Self-care is not a voodoo science. Extensive research has shown that self-care improves attention, immune functioning, self-esteem, empathy, and counselling skills (Schure, Christopher, & Christopher, 2008; Shapiro, Brown, & Biegel, 2007).

Empathy and vulnerability form the basis of self-care. These terms are often used casually in conversations, yet one may have failed to understand them. Wiseman (1996) classified empathy into four crucial parts. Empathy is built upon the cornerstones of perspective taking, non-judgementality, emotional recognition or understanding another’s feelings, and communication of the understanding. A therapist ought to apply the same concepts to themselves; for instance, they must not judge their own thoughts and feelings. A competent therapist would have to recognize their own emotions and communicate this understanding to their conscious mind. Empathy can’t be limited to clients only but has to be extended to therapists themselves. Empathize with your body, empathize with your brain, and empathize with your own depleting empathy.

Vulnerability is a vital part of self-care. Brene Brown, one of the pioneers in research on vulnerability, says that “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.” She found that embracing one’s vulnerability and breaking the power of shame helps people in forming connections and fostering self-growth. Therapists should not see themselves as all-mighty superheroes. Accept your vulnerability, acknowledge your limits, and don’t be ashamed of seeking help when needed.

Hence, a self-care regime should involve practices that help you empathize with yourself and cultivate acceptance of your vulnerability. There is no one correct method of self-care. It can be tailored to your own interests and needs. Practicing mindfulness, exercising, practicing yoga, walking, reading, listening to music, or even watching trashy reality TV can be a form of self-care. I have had a colleague tell me that she would take 30 minute nap every day in order to reenergize herself. A therapist should also seek supervision as it acts as a constant source of support. Often a supervisor would be able to spot the signs of compassion fatigue or emotional burnout in a therapist and would prevent him/her from falling down the rabbit hole.

You must have surely noticed how vital self-care is, as well as how easy it is to practice. However, one of the common barriers to self-care is lack of knowledge. It is not an aspect of formal training. There might be PowerPoint presentation on it but that’s where it stops. It should be promoted just like any other counselling or clinical skill. Hence, self-care should be a fundamental part of a therapist’s daily regime. It should treated as a vital skill for we often hear the age-old adage “Prevention is better than cure.”

Here are some resources to get you started, because the first step to practising self-case is learning about it.

Brene Brown: The Power of Vulnerability

Caring for Ourselves: A Therapist's Guide to Personal and Professional Well-Being by Ellen K. Baker, PhD

Prachi Bhuptani