We all know self-care is important, but it can be difficult to define because there is no “correct” way to engage in self-care.
Gerald Corey, one of the four keynote panelists, stressed the importance of reflecting every day — even if it’s just for a couple of minutes — on how your day is going and what changes you want to make.
“Think of self-care holistically, and not just [as] physical exercise. Think of it in terms of relationships, meaning in life, having fun, recreating our existence, engaging in life rather than pulling back and disengaging,” says Corey, professor emeritus of human services and counseling at California State University at Fullerton.
Michelle Muratori, a senior counselor at the Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins University, finds when she is tending to her self-care needs, her own internal boundaries are stronger, which allows her to be emotionally present with clients in session and let them have their own pain.
Create a self-care plan that works for you
Counselors can have insight and awareness, but if they don’t have their own self-care plan — one that’s simple and realistic — then change won’t happen, asserts Corey, an American Counseling Association Fellow. This plan provides counselors with an opportunity to reflect on ways they can change what they’re doing to function better personally and professionally, he notes.
“It does help to have [the self-care plan] in writing and [to] talk to somebody about it and be accountable. Think of a way to get support to carry out your plan when it becomes difficult,” Corey adds. One useful exercise may be to think about what change you want to see six months or a year into the future, he suggests. Maybe you want to make more time for a hobby or write in your journal more often.
Jude T. Austin II, an assistant professor and coordinator of the clinical mental health counseling track in the professional counseling program at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, advises writing this action plan in pencil because obstacles will arise that force you to readjust your plan. He loves to work out in his garage, but when it’s cold outside, he has to find another way.
Counselors can also incorporate their self-care plan into their current routines, notes Julius A. Austin, a clinical therapist and the coordinator for the Office of Substance Abuse and Recovery at Tulane University. For example, they can check in with family or listen to an audiobook during their hour-long commute to work.
Muratori, co-author of Coping Skills for a Stressful World: A Workbook for Counselors and Clients, reminds counselors that they don’t have to do self-care perfectly. Often, doing their best is good enough, she says.
Get to know your stress
Jude Austin shares advice he received from a supervisor: “Make … stress [and] anxiety your best friend. Sit them next to you and get to know them. Understand what stress does to you [and] how it influences you. What are your triggers? How do you deal with it? Who are the people around you that it affects?”
Considering these questions allows people to be intentional about how they approach self-care because they better understand their unique kind of stressors, he explains.
This reflection should also extend to one’s relationship with other people. Carefully consider who you want to be around professionally and personally, advises Jude Austin, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and licensed marriage and family therapist associate in private practice in Temple, Texas. It’s OK to fire a supervisor or not to be friends with every colleague if the relationship isn’t working for you or makes you feel bad.
Finding ways to cope with stress can be challenging. The keynote speakers, co-authors of Counselor Self-Care, share some activities that help them better manage their stress:
- Find some type of physical activity that you enjoy doing and that fits within your lifestyle and do it relatively consistently, Corey says. And it doesn’t have to be time consuming, he adds. You can take the stairs rather than the elevator, for example.
- Learn something new. When graduate school became overwhelming, Jude Austin started growing bonsai trees to help him cope with the stress of having things outside his control. He still finds learning something new every year helps him manage his stress and fosters his curiosity.
- Connect with others. Julius Austin, an LPC and adjunct professor at Southeastern Louisiana University, takes time to check in with his family, friends and colleagues. Even just a five-minute phone call with his family gives him a sense of warmth and calm after a stressful day.
- Muratori watches late-night comedy as a way to decompress.
- Enjoy nature. Corey advises counselors to step away from their desks and spend at least 30 minutes outside in nature every day. Jude Austin sometimes finds it challenging to leave his office, so he brought nature inside by adding a few plants to his workspace.
- Find meaning and purpose in your life. Think about what makes you want to wake up in the morning, Corey says. He notes that spiritual involvement and service to others can often be a source of meaning for many people.
- Go to counseling. All the speakers stressed the importance of counselors seeking their own counseling throughout their lives.
Revising self-care plans
Each new career stage presents new stressors that require counselors to constantly adjust and revise their self-care plans.
Julius and Jude Austin, co-authors of Surviving and Thriving in Your Counseling Program, are in the early stages of their professional careers, and they’ve noticed new professionals often quickly say “yes” to every professional opportunity because they are building their careers and gaining self-confidence. But this behavior can lead to burnout, so they caution new professionals to be more intentional with the job responsibilities they assume.
Corey suggests counselors say, “Let me think about it,” when approached for a professional opportunity. And then they really have to consider if that opportunity is a good one for them in that moment.
Jude Austin also finds it challenging to balance all of his daily responsibilities between his work and personal life. “Your career and family are sometimes growing in parallel,” he says. And juggling these roles is often when he feels the most out of balance.
Mid-career is often a time when people assume more work-related responsibilities, Muratori says. And they may need someone to hold them accountable and ensure they aren’t taking on too much. She also points out it’s a time when counselors may experience new family stressors such as a child going off to college or caring for older parents.
Corey credits his long, productive counseling career with two things: 1) He took the time to create a self-care plan that worked for him and encompassed all facets of wellness, including physical, emotional, relational and spiritual health. 2) He took the time to reach out and connect with colleagues. “This can be a lonely profession,” he notes. “Don’t wait for somebody else to … reach out. … It’s important for us to reach out to those friends and colleagues and take the initiative.”
Counselors shouldn’t feel guilty for taking time to care for themselves. “Pay attention to yourself; listen to yourself; allow yourself to guide you through this [self-care process],” Jude Austin says. “If something doesn’t feel right, doesn’t feel comfortable, then reevaluate. … Self-care is flexible. It’s not selfish. It’s responsible. So, just be kind to yourself.”
Find out more about the American Counseling Association’s 2021 Virtual Conference Experience at counseling.org/conference/conference-2021
Registration is open until April 30; participants will have access to all conference content until May 31.
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