I’m Sick of Self-Care

by Karah Chappel, MT-BC

This buzzword has been thrown around for the last few years like a magic cure-all: “You won’t burn out if you have good self-care!” “You won’t incur vicarious trauma if you have self-care!” “You won’t need vacations or be tired after work if you practice self-care!” And listen, I’ve worked on self-care as much as the next MT. I’ve gone to continuing education courses, bought relaxing teas, read books about decreasing stress, and talked to supervisors over the years about how they view self-care. 

But unfortunately a lot of the traditional options didn’t work for me. As an MT working with clients in acute distress and with extensive trauma histories, not to mention systemic restrictions of a hospital, I had to figure out how to replenish my needs after work or I would not be living the fulfilling life I wanted for myself. Come with me while I walk you through a few things I worked out the hard way – so hopefully you don’t have to.

Before I show you this list, I want you to know my outlook here: traditional self-care is a small set of tasks that you add to your daily routine; my version of self-care is reorganizing your life to optimize your energy and brain functioning. If that sounds overwhelming, I get it. You are welcome to take as little or as many of these tips as feel attainable to you – because that is the point. As you change one thing to more efficiently use your energy, you will have more energy to spend elsewhere. That energy may first go towards healing compassion fatigue, increasing the cleanliness of your space, and actually having energy to enjoy with friends; but eventually you may have enough to implement a few more changes. 

Figure Out How Your Brain Works

Remember back in college when you had to study for tests? Everyone had their own method whether it was color coding with highlighters, typing outlines, or rewriting scribbles from class. Now we have to do that all over again for post-school tasks. Is it less draining to alternate between client time/note time or to lump all your clients at the start of your day and all your notes at the end? When processing through your day do you need to speak out loud? Or write? Do you need someone else to receive it or can you give a speech to your steering wheel on the way home? 

Consider also your brain’s reception of sensory material: are certain fabric textures more distracting than others? Are some foods easier to eat? Notice what emotions or memories come up with your “regular” albums and playlists – are these perhaps worsening your stress? Once you know what is easiest for your brain (and what’s making things more difficult) you can change your habits to optimize your unique brain structure, whether those are work tasks or general life needs that affect you throughout the day. Check out this handy blog to determine your sensory profile.

Set Up Systems for Your Least Favorite Tasks

The worst part of doing the gross (physically or metaphorically) tasks is how much energy it takes to get over the dread of starting them. If you can implement systems that lower the barrier to entry, you may be surprised how much easier they get. For example, if you do better with all similar tasks together, consider setting a biweekly cleaning day to do every household/office/car chore in one block. This system then includes giving yourself grace to live with the mess in the meantime. Alternatively, if the big clean is what overwhelms you, implement daily workplace checks with habit stacking – perhaps as you walk out you pick up each piece of trash between your desk and the door to drop in the trash on the way out. 

You may find that it’s easier to complete a task when the materials you need are as close as possible, such as keeping a pack of Clorox wipes in the front pocket of your guitar case. Systems could also look like: accountability buddies, lists, or utilizing a reminder or timer app on your phone.

Feed Yourself

As irritating as I often find it to be, I do need food to keep functioning. You do, too. And if you’re not getting enough nutrients to fuel your body, you will not have the physical or mental energy to complete all the other tasks ahead of you. Is it worth allocating more of your budget to groceries so you can get pre-made meals for busy days? Should you find easy-to-eat snacks you can keep and/or eat in the car? Personally I’m a big fan of apple sauce or baby food pouches that give you fruits and veggies while still keeping your hands clean. If you notice that you have a hard time noticing hunger cues when you get stressed, consider planning to eat at consistent times or keeping favorite foods that you always enjoy eating on hand.

Hydration is also important: do you have water available to you throughout the day? Would it help to have disposable water bottles at multiple locations (backseat of the car, pantry, bedside, desk drawer, instrument bag) so you can drink water as soon as you feel thirsty? We’re trying to use as little effort as possible to meet each of these needs.

Be Straightforward With Your Support System

If you’ve made it this far through the list, you’re already figuring out how to take care of yourself – and your community wants to help you with that! It’s up to you, though, to communicate exactly what you need. Do you need someone to sit in your kitchen and chat with you while you clean? Do you need help cleaning? Do you just need a silent friendly body on the couch? Maybe when you were setting up systems you realized that you need external reminders – ask your friends to text you in the evening reminding you to shut down your laptop; ask your coworkers to keep you accountable for eating lunch everyday. 

Whatever the smallest most specific need is that you can think of – that is the thing you should tell your people. They love you and letting them take some of the burden not only allows you to care for yourself, but deepens your relationships as well.

Get Your Own Therapist

Before we get into this one, I would like to say that I recognize it is a privilege to be able to afford therapy and to have the time to dedicate to not only the hour every other week that I see my therapist, but also the time and energy outside of sessions I spend reflecting and implementing changes. That being said.

One of the most life changing things a mentor ever said to me was “Vicarious trauma is trauma.” I have witnessed and experienced many hurtful and horrendous things; but since self-care workshops told me that helping professions “only” incur vicarious trauma at work, I shoved my responses to these events as far down as I could and told myself it shouldn’t hurt me. But it did, and those responses were valid. Finding a therapist who could help me acknowledge and process work-related trauma not only freed me from symptoms like nightmares, but also allowed me to show up as a more open practitioner for clients. Underlying stressors like traumatic memories decrease our window of tolerance for every other stressor throughout the day; you may not realize how much space past experiences are taking up until you start to clear them out.

Work With Your Boss

We can talk all day about what will make your job easier to manage, but if you’re not communicating that to the folks who mandate your caseload and work processes, nothing will really change. Again, I am very aware that there are barriers here: you can’t always impact how things are done in the workplace. That is why so much of this list is applicable to things you can control in your personal life. Utilize what control and tools you do have. Can you eat lunch with your boss once a week to receive supervision on clinical troubles? Can you implement interventions a few times a week that are easiest for you to facilitate within the mandated curriculum? If you work in private practice, this becomes even more important. Us private practice folks are amazing at taking our work home with us – often because our office is our home. I regularly send and receive emails as early as 5:30am and as late as 11pm (don’t ask what time I’m writing this – do as I say, not as I do). Discuss with your supervisor when you will and won’t respond to emails, and what days of the week or weekend you are available for work-related tasks.

Sometimes You Gotta Leave

No one wants to be the one to say this, but I will: sometimes you need to quit that job. This is a decision you will always have to make for yourself: Where are your priorities? Are you in a binding financial situation? How much of your work stress appears to be something you can control and manage? But consider that if this is a recurring conversation for you, the situation may not fix itself.

The biggest shift toward creating a fulfilling work/life balance for myself was finding a boss who would fight for me and my wellbeing. I was doing every piece of self-care I could lay hands on and still felt like I was perpetually being pulled under by oppressive systems, unrealistic caseload expectations, petty workplace drama, and wave after wave of clients that I couldn’t give my best therapeutic self because I was barely surviving. Within a week of being hired by a supervisor who supported my longevity in the profession and my personal needs, I felt mountains of weight lift off my shoulders. That was my first step which freed up enough energy for me to tackle every other step on this list.

Are we feeling energized that a new outlook may actually be the thing to shift our patterns of stress and overwhelm? Or intimidated by all the information? I hope it’s the first one. I want to remind you that healing burnout, compassion fatigue, trauma, and chronic stress is a long process; it has been over a year since I began practicing the steps I just laid out for you, and it has only been in the last five months that I have truly been able to see how far I have come. I wish you the best of luck!

 

What practices have worked for y’all? Leave your ideas in the comments!

 

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