Forgive me for taking an unannounced hiatus. I am back.

I have been thinking a great deal about stress lately, not least because I have been under quite a bit of it for the past two months. While I would love to be under less of it, I am learning to master it. For better or for worse, I am getting ample opportunities to practice stress reduction. Flexibility and resiliency seem to be key. Turning on a dime is a critical skill. Containing emotional responses in the moment-I’ve got that one down.

All of this leads me to the importance of self-care as clinicians, as artists, as humans. Self-care is not something that can wait for the weekend or the vacation. It simply must happen on a minute by minute basis if we are to function effectively in our work in the healing arts. It is as simple and complex as committing to taking a break or two every day. It is as simple and complex as carving out time for ourselves-time to meet OUR priorities, time to meet OUR needs, time to address OUR concerns. I know that I get very caught up in making sure everyone else is able to get their needs met, often at the expense of my own. There is a very large difference between selfishness and self-care. If I were selfish, I would not care what anyone else had on their plate, I would just make sure that I got all my own work done. But with self-care, I am invested in the outcome for all of us while ensuring I do not throw myself onto the pyre of martyrdom.

Oh, I am waxing philosophic tonight, forgive me. I am moving my studio and change is afoot everywhere and really all I want to do is lay on the beach for a while. Here’s hoping you are having a creative and loving summer.


Take a Hint

One could easily say that my life is fairly hectic. I work full time at a psychiatric hospital, I teach at a local university, I have a fledgling private practice, and I am very involved in my spiritual community. When I am not doing these things, I am working in the garden or studio, spending time with friends, and trying to relax. And in my “spare” time, I think about going back to school and writing a book. Now don’t get me wrong, I am hardly complaining. In fact, I feel pretty blessed by all of the opportunities that come my way. But let me tell you about the flip side and the perennial challenge of therapist self-care.

As I write this, I am laying on an ice pack and waiting for my chiropractic appointment. Holding onto stress has literally frozen my back into place. It’s pretty frustrating knowing that I have unwittingly done this to myself. Rather than beating myself up about it, I am going to take this as a not so subtle wake up call to do a better job of tending to myself. I am going to slow down a bit and take more time for myself. I have to heed the warning that my body is sending to me.  I overdo it on a regular basis. I take great pride in “getting it all done.” But at what price? A frozen back is the price this time, I don’t want to find any other dues to pay.

I need to practice more of what I preach about self-care. I do a lot to take care of myself, but clearly I am holding the daily stressors at a far deeper level. I need to give serious thought to how best to care for myself so that I am in optimum physical, emotional and spiritual health. I owe it to my clients, my students, my co-workers, my friends and family-but most importantly, I owe it to myself.

To-do #1: Breathe.

By 11:15 a.m. on January 1, I had already broken my New Year’s Intention. Twice.  What pray tell was this intention? Exercise more? Eat better? Make more art? No, it was simply that I declared a moratorium on volunteering.

I am feeling fairly swamped lately by all of the things that I have willingly agreed to do. But when I am really stressed out, the fact that I chose these activities is little solace. Thus, the moratorium on volunteering which is proving very difficult to stand by. So difficult in fact, that I have considered ditching the idea altogether. After all, how hard are the things I am asked to do? Most of them are simple, don’t take much time, and help out the person doing the asking. Who can say no to that? Clearly I can’t.

Being engaged in a community and a profession means that many wonderful service opportunities come my way. How can I realistically think that I can say no to them? I think the real trick and the real intention is to find a balance so that I can help out and still have some fuel left over for myself. Over the past few weeks, I have been way too stressed out. This is a recipe for disaster for me. I invariably get sick when this happens and I let go of my self-care routines.

I spent this weekend getting myself back on track with my diet and exercise routines, taking care of household chores that were piling up, reconnecting with friends, and trying to relax and stay in the moment. Oh sure, I have a long list of things to do for school, work and church. But just for this weekend, I let myself have some breathing room and stopped forcing myself to maximize every free moment.

My new New Year’s Intention is to volunteer to take better care of myself. Crossing things off the to-do list isn’t as satisfying when I can’t enjoy the fruits of my labor. Getting things done for the sake of getting things done provides little comfort at the end of the day. The real problem that drove my original intention is not volunteering too much but rather that I left little time for my own rejuvenation. Now, let’s all take a big cleansing breath! Happy New Year!

Heartbreak Hotel

One of my mantras is “If your heart isn’t getting broken doing this work, you are not paying attention.” Why pay such close attention? What are the risks and payoffs? How do we put out hearts back together again day after day?

A full engagement in the work of therapy means that we open ourselves to relationship with another. A dispassionate and distant approach is possible and even the standard in some models of therapy. I work from an existential and humanistic approach and to me that means  diving into the heart of connection with another. Does this mean I have a full-blown completely transparent and mutual relationship with my clients, one bordering on friendship? Absolutely not. But it does mean that I am present and available to them to journey with them  into the dark reaches of the heart. It means sitting with people through all the messy feelings and tears and fears of life. It means celebrating growth and success and healing. Sometimes it means sitting with them when they are dying.

The risks: not being able to recover ourselves sufficiently, getting our hearts broken beyond repair, taking the hurt and therapeutic failures personally, overextending ourselves as therapists and fellow feeling human beings. This all leads to burnout and even a departure from the field of therapy. The payoffs: a deep understanding of the matters of another person’s heart, compassion for the suffering in the world, perspective on our own sorrows, a greater capacity for empathy.

I spent a great deal of my career working with elders and medically ill people. I truly love working with these populations. And yes, your heart gets broken every day if you are paying attention. But oh, the moments of grace! The blind woman who painted trees. The woman with late stage diabetes who started painting and found herself all over again. The man with a serious self-inflicted wound who tapped into his anger at himself and the world, and then re-entered the world. The people with Huntington’s Disease who delved into art history. The elderly man who took our storytelling group on an imaginary drive to California in his convertible. The man whose glasses I always washed before our sessions and who died suddenly one night. Grace, grace, grace.

Putting our own hearts back together means becoming a guru of self-care. This will look different for everyone. For me, it means staying engaged with my own life, my own family, friends and activities. Making my own art, having homemade spa days, tending to daily life, spending time with friends and family, and staying connected with my spiritual community all buoy me in the sea of heartbreak. Any population is going to drain your energies in some way. The question is can you fill yourself back up sufficiently to continue doing the work. After five years of working with a medical population, the answer began to be “no” for me. And that’s okay. We did great work together, I loved every minute of it, and it was time to move on.

Heartbreak is a place to visit, not a place to live.

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