The Importance of Self-Care for Us Counselors and Clients Too
After 29 years in the mental health field, the most important thing I learned was to take care of myself first. In the helping business, it can be easy to get attached to people you treat, and worry about how they are doing. When this happens, it is a clear sign to stop whatever you are doing and take a break. Why? Because if we are not in balance, it is difficult to take care of others.
As I teach new therapists how to survive in this industry my first recommendation is for them to go through their own therapy. Countertransference is a term used when the actions of a client trigger us. A therapist will often get triggered if a client is talking about the same issue the counselor has. This major fact was drilled into us in graduate school. For this reason, each of us students worked very hard as clients while we all counseled each other. A great byproduct of this was graduating from school and already being a seasoned therapist.
Personal therapy is one important aspect for new therapists, the next is tending to ourselves physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. It is natural to focus on the physical because it is the mainstay of our society. When assessing clients I ask what does the person do in times of trouble. Many exercise, drink, take other drugs, isolate, or make themselves busy. Many will also turn to food and chocolate is something that seems to stand out. My father just wanted to sleep and for the last few years of his life, this was how he handled his depression. Rarely some person will tell me more functional things they turn to. If you have an emotional wound, you have to treat it emotionally.
Emotional self-care – that’s new. When all four areas in our life – physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual are addressed we have better odds of living a stable, happy, and healthy life. Now, back to the emotional. Are you happy? If not, how do you get happy? This is the real issue. There is no cookie-cutter approach to happiness, though you’ve felt it before. I’m sure you have found yourself laughing, or in love and all your thoughts were on that person that was the greatest person who ever lived. Emotional self-care is doing things that elicit these feelings.
What works best for me is doing things with my inner child. Reparenting is basically being the mom and dad to the younger you. This younger you can be of any age, though I tend to hang out the most with the part inside of me that suffered abuse around the age of 4. When we go through a shock, a portion of us becomes stuck there. Fritz Perls from Gestalt therapy would call this being “Fixated” or having “Unfinished Business”. Spiritual Psychology believes that when love is applied to hurt we heal, so I tend to do lots of hugging and kissing to my younger self. Weird? Of course, this is weird, but emotional healing is a language all of its own. Think about it this way – if you can’t love yourself, how can you love others? Therefore I tend to focus my attention on this time period of my life because of the resulting ripples of fear that it had created in me (hoping not to ever get hurt like that again) and put shields up towards others. This is why I suffered in close personal relationships because I had a tendency of putting up walls in hopes of being safe. I didn’t realize that those walls impaired my relationships, and eventually brought them to an end. In applying love to that younger part of me, healing took place, I became more vulnerable and more sensitive to my needs and the needs of others.
We ask people to ride back in time to a recent emotional reaction to when it first began. This is the part to interact with and give love to. Do you love somebody? Have you ever loved somebody? If the answer is yes, then this love needs to be held onto and given also to you. This is how we heal and this is when we are able to give out more love to others.
Of course, there are other emotional tools to nurture ourselves emotionally. Listening to uplifting music, walking in nature, and being around people you care about. Giving hugs and kisses is a blend of the physical and emotional. Creative expression blends the mental and emotional. Prayer can blend the spiritual and emotional. As we create good feelings inside it touches us deeply.
Mental self-care is basically exchanging negative thoughts with positives, or simply drowning out the negativity that goes on in your head. “No, I am not stupid, the real truth is I am a smart person,” can be the rebuttal to the negative voice in your head.
We did an exercise in school where for 15 minutes we tried to keep our thoughts positive. Oh, was I excited about this because I had gone through a seminar that helped people create positive self-statements and I was going to show up all my classmates. Yes, everything back then was all about competition and winning. So I started out flooding my mind with affirmations and a minute later the negativity began and kept going, then after 15 minutes I tallied 75 negative thoughts. I felt humiliated. The key to mental self-care is remaining up. Okay, so I had 75 negative thoughts but since I probably had 500 thoughts, I probably did rather well. And that is mental nurturing – It is always ending on a positive note.
Spiritual self-care can be accomplished with meditation, prayer, and visualization. To take spiritual self-care to the next level, have an intimate relationship with your inner counselor or the God of your knowing. What is the inner counselor? It is your inner voice. You know, that part inside of you that is wise and gives you the great advice that you try to ignore. In working with your inner counselor, magic takes place.
In our IOP program, we teach participants our self-counseling method in which you counsel yourself. I was shocked when they showed us this format in graduate school. “No way!” I blurted out. My professors just laughed. Though, in learning all of the counseling strategies and practicing them on one another, it was natural for us to then turn inwards and practice our tools on ourselves. Now, it is humbling when my clients turn in their self-counseling and did better than my one on one sessions with them.
I believe the key is education. This education doesn’t have to be learned in school, but in real life. Many of my clients become so good at the craft that they are better than 80% of the therapists out there, because of one thing – they are doing the work. When I trained interns at the Mental Health Urgent Care Center years ago, many of these greenhorns were brilliant, though the one on ones they tried to do with clients just were blah. It seemed they were book smart but with people, they were simply lost. Those who have been there and healed, become incredible therapists because they have worked their way out of it themselves.
As I type this, I am aware that it is very difficult to portray what actually goes on in the counseling process. For many people that are skeptical about going to counseling, feeling they aren’t screwed up enough to go, I want you to know that even if you are the healthiest person on Earth, there is always something good that comes out of therapy. The luxury of talking about your life, the release you get when you let go of secrets or being honest about how you really feel about something or someone is quite invigorating. But, learning how to apply love to the wounded parts of yourself, to me is the most sacred part of therapy. Letting go of wounds in a profound way has profoundly changed the lives of countless people. I for one love counseling people that have had years of counseling in the past, because my method is so vastly different. Talking to my younger self? Yes, especially that, because as that is healed out we treat ourselves and others vastly differently.
Compassionate Care is Always Available
There are many more tools and strategies you can use in your pursuit of happiness. Here is where we come in. Contact us at Basic Steps Mental Health and let us support and educate you on this journey back to your loving heart center. Imagine living a heart-centered life, regardless of what is happening externally. We’d love to be of help.
For 25 years, Dr. Scott Alpert, the clinical director of Basic Steps Mental Health, has treated over 7,000 people with mental health and addiction problems, using a Psychological approach that mixes and matches ten of the top approaches used in the industry. We are here virtually and in-person to help you get through this COVID-19 pandemic and many other difficulties you may be experiencing.
May you have good mental health.