A recipe for self-care ineffectiveness - and what to do instead!

A recipe for self-care ineffectiveness - and what to do instead!

I’m not going to lie, in my over 25 years as a psychologist there have been more times than I care to admit where I’ve found myself feeling envious of some of my colleagues and thinking there must be something wrong with me. These thoughts and feelings are usually triggered by situations where colleagues seem exceptionally skilled at the whole self-care thing or where they seem to be un-phased by the nature of our work and have no difficulties seeing seven or more clients per day without any apparent repercussions.

As you might expect, these thoughts and feelings weren’t particularly helpful and, if left unchecked, only served to keep me stuck.

So, it wasn’t all that surprising (yet very validating) when I read that wishful thinking and self-blame are two strategies associated with self-care ineffectiveness among both psychotherapists and the general public (Norcross and VandenBos, 2018*). The authors hypothesize that both wishful thinking and self-blame only serve to amplify distress and interfere with problem-solving and effective action. No arguments here!

So, the question becomes what to do if you find yourself falling into the wishful thinking, self-blame trap?

The authors offer some helpful tips (p. 158) such as not comparing yourself to the “glowing exemplar” of self-care but rather to the “typical practitioner struggling to remain sane and solvent in a busy life”. Who’d have guessed the typical practitioner struggles with these things? They also recommend reminding yourself there is no single self-care strategy and finding ways to transform the wishful thinking into constructive action. Lastly, they remind us of the importance of our own personal therapy if this appears to be a more “enduring personality pattern versus a transient reaction.”

Many of the things I’ve personally found helpful have come about because of my work with Intentional Therapist and could certainly fall into the category of tips offered by Norcross and VandenBos. Interestingly, they also fall nicely under the four pillars of self-care we emphasize at Intentional Therapist, namely:

Connection/community, Courage, Compassion, and Creativity

I’ve found it incredibly helpful to read about the “hazards” of our work (Norcross and VandenBos) and connect with a community of trusted colleagues to discuss these as well as more general self-care challenges.

Having this knowledge and the courage to be vulnerable when initiating these discussions has been an eye-opening experience and helped me appreciate our similarities.

This, in turn, has helped me to have a more compassionate rather than judgmental voice towards myself. For those of you who are familiar with the self-compassion literature, you know this approach is much more effective at motivating action than self-blame and judgement. This has helped me incorporate some changes in my workday that I’ve found helpful in counteracting some of the “hazards” (e.g., intentionally reflecting on/monitoring how my therapy sessions went, doing a chair dance when I’m feeling weighed down from the heaviness of the work, reminding myself of the various factors that influence therapeutic success, taking short walks down the hall between clients, monthly consultation).

Our work with Intentional Therapist has also really served to broaden my understanding of self-care and appreciate the things I am already doing that, in the past, I wouldn’t have recognized as self-care as these didn’t fall into the stereotypical picture of “self-care.” For me personally, things like mowing the lawn, gardening, staining the deck, shovelling snow, decorating the house for Halloween, Christmas, etc. are far more restorative than a day at a spa. While others may see these activities as simply more “work” they are my form of adult play and creativity. And that’s okay.

Do you find yourself falling into the wishful thinking, self-blame trap? If so, what can you do to climb out of this trap and move towards a path of self-compassion and constructive action? How can a sense of connection and community fit into your plan? Does your definition of self-care need to be broadened to include things like adult play and creativity?

And - If you would like support in emphasizing more connection, compassion, courage, or creativity in your days, please stay tuned for more resources in the coming weeks and months! In the meantime please click on the link below to listen to our recent interview on the Thoughts on Record podcast where we had a great discussion with host Dr. Pete Kelly about navigating the hazards of our work and how we can use these '4 C's' to combat the hazards.

Navigating the Hazards

*Norcross, J & VandenBos, G. (2018). Leaving it at the office: A guide to psychotherapist self-care (2nd edition). Guilford Press.