Ultimately, your single most important instrument is the person you are, and your most powerful technique is your ability to model aliveness and realness. It is of paramount importance that we take care of ourselves, for how can we take care of others if we are not taking care of ourselves? We need to work at dealing with those factors that threaten to drain life from us and render us helpless. I encourage you to consider how you can apply the theories you will be studying to enhance your life from both a personal and a professional standpoint.
Learn to look within yourself to determine what choices you are making (and not making) to keep yourself vital. If you are aware of the factors that sap your vitality as a person, you are in a better position to prevent the condition known as professional burnout. You have considerable control over whether you become burned out or not. You cannot always control stressful events, but you do have a great deal of control over how you interpret and react to these events. It is important to realize that you cannot continue to give and give while getting little in return. There is a price to pay for always being available and for assuming responsibility over the lives and destinies of others. Become attuned to the subtle signs of burnout rather than waiting for a full-blown condition of emotional and physical exhaustion to set in. You would be wise to develop your own strategy for keeping yourself alive personally and professionally.
Self-monitoring is a crucial first step in self-care. If you make an honest inventory of how well you are taking care of yourself in specific domains, you will have a framework for deciding what you may want to change. By making periodic assessments of the direction of your own life, you can determine whether you are living the way you want to live. If not, decide what you are willing to actually do to make changes occur. By being in tune with yourself, by having the experience of centeredness and solidness, and by feeling a sense of personal power, you have the foundation for integrating your life experiences with your professional experiences. Such an awareness can provide the basis for retaining your physical and psychological vitality and for being an effective professional.
As counseling professionals, we tend to be caring people who are good at taking care of others, but often we do not treat ourselves with the same level of care. Self-care is not a luxury; it is an ethical mandate. If we neglect to care for ourselves, our clients will not be getting the best of us. If we are physically drained and psychologically depleted, we will not have much to give to those with whom we work. It is not possible to provide nourishment to our clients if we are not nourishing ourselves.
Mental health professionals often comment that they do not have time to take care of themselves. My question to them is, “Can you afford not to take care of yourself?” To successfully meet the demands of our professional work, we must take care of ourselves physically, psychologically, intellectually, socially, and spiritually. Ideally, our self-care should mirror the care we provide for others. If we hope to have the vitality and stamina required to stay focused on our professional goals, we need to incorporate a wellness perspective into our daily living. Wellness is the result of our conscious commitment to a way of life that leads to zest, peace, vitality, and
Wellness and self-care are being given increased attention in professional journals and at professional conferences. When reading about self-care and wellness, reflect on what you can do to put what you know into action. If you are interested in learning more about therapist self-care, I highly recommend Leaving It at the Office: A Guide to Psychotherapist Self-Care (Norcross & Guy, 2007) and Empathy Fatigue: Healing the Mind, Body, and Spirit of Professional Counselors (Stebnicki, 2008). For more on the topic of the counselor as a person and as a professional, see Creating Your Professional Path: Lessons From My Journey (Corey, 2010).
One of the basic issues in the counseling profession concerns the significance of the counselor as a person in the therapeutic relationship. In your professional work, you are asking people to take an honest look at their lives and to make choices concerning how they want to change, so it is critical that you do this in your own life. Ask yourself questions such as “What do I personally have to offer others who are struggling to find their way?” and “Am I doing in my own life what I may be urging others to do?”
You can acquire an extensive theoretical and practical knowledge and can make that knowledge available to your clients. But to every therapeutic session you also bring yourself as a person. If you are to promote change in your clients, you need to be open to change in your own life. This willingness to attempt to live in accordance with what you teach and thus to be a positive model for your clients is what makes you a “therapeutic person.”