I remember a time in my life that I used to think to myself "I'll sleep when I'm dead," because I had so much schoolwork and constant extracurricular activities to do. (While being an IB high school student was intellectually fulfilling, it was not the most well time in my life--though it did provide a needed escape from a difficult family dynamic and was probably adaptive at the time.)
Fortunately, over time I've come to embrace sleep as a foundational part of my wellness routine. In graduate school I set myself a rule of getting 8 hours each night, because I discovered how much better I could serve my clients when I was properly rested. While maybe it was usually closer to 7 and a half, I found that that amount of sleep really made a difference for my life and work. When things became stressful, particularly as a PhD student, I had to get more intentional to maintain good sleep so I developed a routine for better sleep.
Today's post is just a chance for me to share my favorite sleep hygiene tips that have helped me through grad school and the busy mind of PhD work.
I just finished a "5 Rhythms" beat-focused workshop and came away with a few lovely experiences I want to reflect on and share. (I learned in some recent reading that movement plus verbalizing it has more benefits than movement only--good to know.)
When I arrived at the studio, I found a wood-floored open room with about a half-dozen strangers wearing ready-to-move clothes like me, different ages, and some chatting while others sat in the space. We began movement without music and I got on the floor and used the opportunity to get in touch with where I would enjoy stretching and releasing, focusing on my hips and back that always enjoy attention.
The music started with very flowing songs that built in energy, and I found larger movements and more energy as we went. When a song with lyrics about "going into deep water" to find something was playing (if I remember right--though it doesn't really matter if I do) I found a movement that will be meaningful for me after today. I have one movement from years ago that I think this one also felt like: releasing a burden. In today's variation on that movement-need being met, I gestured from my head upwards, like lifting a hat above me, then turning my palms out and swooping my hands through the "hat" and out to the sides to be hind me with a bend from the waist and bow of the head. This repeated, as I imagined "getting out of my head." The movement that followed involved different movements from my heart, as I sought to get more into my body and spontaneity. These movements are important to me because I do find it challenging sometimes to stop thinking about what's going on (when this movement first arose, I was trying to label which of the 5 rhythms we were in at the moment) and to settle into my heart and body.
The releasing movement helped, and I found flow that moved me across the floor and had my limbs using the various kinds of space around me. That experience built into staccato, energetic music that brought beats out in my tap-dancer's feet and other parts of me, then chaos of multi-layered rhythms including the chance to bring in some West African broad and swinging movements to a drumming song. Though I had learned styles come through, I found them only as part of a more natural, personal vocabulary, and I felt free of the technical concerns they could be tied to. They became part of my own movement language. Then we moved into lyrical movement, and I felt myself getting tired, before we came to stillness at the end.
As we settled into the final, still moments before finishing, I felt inclined to ask myself if I felt safe. In the past, an experience like this would not always have felt safe for me. I noticed a couple of fears I was still carrying in the very back of my mind, and I mindfully noted them. These thoughts included a lingering fear that the others in the room might judge me for being sweaty after all that movement, so I gently reminded myself that I didn't need to fear the strangers or that judgment; they were here for the same things as me, and sweat was to be expected. Then I felt like I should ask if my body felt safe. I paused before answering myself, and found that yes, it did. As I stood to leave, I grounded my feet, and walked away keeping with me the sense that I brought safety with me, inside, and my body is a safe place to be.
As I got into my car, a song from my days at the UF dance department came back to me:
Here I stand in beauty
Beauty is before me
Beauty is behind me
Above and below me
We would sing it after a warm-up, last thing before beginning our semester-end shows. We'd stand in a circle holding hands, and the resonance of all the voices from my embodied and creative friends and fellow dancers made it a beautiful moment as we repeated the song a few times. Today, driving home, I felt new lyrics come up:
Here I stand as beauty
Beauty is within me
Beauty is before me
And all around me
After all that, it feels appropriate to end with an acknowledgement of connection: namaste.
Counseling sure has its ups and downs. Sometimes I've felt troubled for my clients in the deep hurts they've experienced, their ongoing and intense pain, and even concern for their physical wellbeing. In those times I've been grateful to my community of colleagues who understand the challenges of witnessing so many difficulties that are out of our control and caring for the people in the middle of all that.
Fortunately, there's the other side of this experience, where truly good things happen for and within clients, also outside counselors' control, as much as we may try to contribute. Recently I've been able to experience some especially special "ups" with several clients that are on my heart today. These successes are absolutely the clients' successes, but it's such an honor and gratifying to be in a supporting role as they do the work of their own healing and growth.
That's what really stands out to me: how much the growth comes from the clients. The peopleI'm thinking of have returned after shorter or longer breaks in our work, for one reason or another. And either because distance highlighted small changes or because of spontaneous and big new growth processes that developed in the away time, I can see important changes in them that clearly came from within themselves. They accomplish wonderful things in self awareness and self-care without my direct support, and I love to see it! I have gotten to reflect back to these people the evidence of their own resilience, inner wisdom, potential for healing and growth, and simply their willingness to do the hard work of facing these challenges. I believe that my support in our time together can play a role in helping them get to the readiness to make such strides on their own, but I know that the real work is theirs, and I'm happy to celebrate how important that is with them when they see it going well.
It's definitely been a gift to see this in a few clients recently. It reminds me that when clients leave therapy, even in a concerning way, their process continues and their innate capacity and will to be well are still with them. It renews my hope and confidence that our work can help bring them more in contact with those inner resources so that, as they are ready to, they can make the changes they need.
A few weeks ago I came across a hashtag on Twitter, #BoringSelfCare, and it has really stuck with me.
The idea of the hashtag is that self-care is not all about vacations and paid services to treat yourself. Those are things that counseling students have often said they don't have time for, or can't afford. I'm sure it's not just students who believe that, but also professionals, and many of our clients. We come to believe we don't have the luxury of maintaining our wellness because we imagine it's a very involved activity. I think that's an unfortunate misunderstanding of what it is to care for ourselves, and this hashtag helps counter that.
Self-care isn't just fancy, big, or expensive gestures for ourselves. It's also simple, mundane things like doing the laundry and cleaning the floors, or exercising or eating something good. This possibility connected with me immediately, as I looked from my computer screen to my grungy carpet. I realized what a simple thing it would be to go from resenting the dirt there to cleaning it up and enjoying that freshness underfoot the rest of the day. I could suddenly see that impending chore as a chance to give a simple gift to myself instead of dreading a cleaning task to cram in with the others on Saturday. It would only take 5 minutes, less than the time I could have spent worrying about it.
Since then, I've started doing a bit of laundry here and there on weekdays, running the dishwasher and looking forward to putting the dishes away later that day, and vacuuming on random days. I'll admit, having the privilege of automation makes it an extra treat; I love when the machines (the dishwasher, the washing machine) do the work with me.
I've also been walking on the treadmill while I do schoolwork or watch a show, listening to Pandora in the car instead of the same stuff on the radio, and savoring a PSL at work as other little treats. These things help me pause, feel good, or just enjoy something I'd be doing anyway a little bit more.
They aren't costly or time-consuming, but when I remind myself to integrate pleasant or helpful little things into my day and approach them as valuable, I get more from them. I hope this might inspire you to experiment with some #boringselfcare, too!
There are so many thoughts that have come up during my reading of Bessel van der Kolk's "The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma"! Many times I pause to appreciate how well he (a stranger) understands my experience of trauma, and to recognize how the themes connect with how I experience and understand my clients. A key theme in what is going on for me while I read is the importance of embodiment and attunement with my body.
Lately I've been paying extra attention to my physical needs, trying to maintain health and mental wellness during my dissertation phase. The past few days have had an extra dose of that. I began reading just as Hurricane Irma visited Florida, and have taken the book's discussion of the physical aspects of stress and trauma as daily reminders to care for myself physically. Since the storm, I've tuned in to when I feel less at ease and in what ways, noticing when tension comes into my hip flexors, back, shoulder, or face, and noticing when my stomach feels still or unsettled or hungry, even a little bit. Those are the regular cues I've learned to watch for in myself as I've been practicing for the past few years, and have increasingly attuned to recently. When I saw the tension coming back after the storm as I got back into the swing of everyday life after fearing unknowns Irma might bring, I looked for ways to care for those physical needs. A hot shower, a session of exercise, stretching and foam-rolling before bed, or just sitting in a different chair. A nice cup of tea also helps me settle down. These are simple things, and they could seem shallow, but van der Kolk's writing verifies what I experience: that caring for my body in these simple little ways when needs first arise (instead of putting them off) helps me feel more centered, and re-balances me. Even moment to moment I can re-balance by enjoying a nice breath.
While I'm paying attention and caring for myself like this, I have more energy. In fact, while I've been putting a little extra care into this practice, I found that this week my tap dancing in class had extra pizzazz, and just today I even choreographed a bit of original tap (something I used to find very hard to do and remember). I think those are signs of good self care!
There are a few more chapters in the book on the ways we can heal trauma, and I'm looking forward to taking them at a similarly savoring pace, and integrating what I learn for myself, then sharing it with clients, too. There are so many gifts in this book, I'm keeping notes and am sure I'll review it again soon.
While a draft of my dissertation proposal is being revised, I have had extra time to return to reading. It's been a pleasure to spend more time with books for fun (rather than the textbooks of the past...forever). I realized, while carrying a stack of planned reading, that books still bring me comfort just to see and hold. They take me back to when I was a kid and always had a book on me, always had my mind and face in one. While re-reading a couple books from a few years ago in recent weeks, I also recalled the feeling of seeing my truths reflected in someone else's writing, and the curiosity the comes from discovering new angles of others' truths that I might incorporate for myself, too. Now that I've gotten back in touch with this joy, I plan to continue reading more, whether I'm writing more dissertation drafts or not.
"A Shining Affliction"
Annie Rogers' "A Shining Affliction" is one of these books I've picked back up. I'm currently re-reading some of my past favorites, and I'm glad a friend reminded me of this option. By the first time I read it a few years ago, I'd gotten into the habit of marking my books where they most marked me, so on this go-around I had the chance to notice where my perspective had shifted. Old notes in blue, new notes in red. I'm a different reader each time, in some ways--and not at all in others.
Realness in Relationships
The first time I read this book, I was in my first year of clinical experience. This time around, a few years in, I could see how much more I understand Annie's writing about the personal aspects of the relationships of therapy, as a therapist and client, and in supervision. I marked these passages much more, and this time I was reflecting on real client relationships I've had that have bloomed into something more intimate like her relationship with her client, Ben, and with her therapist, Blumenfeld. I can feel the reality she describes of the difficulty of holding two worlds together, both mine and my client's, and seeking to be real in relationships through all the risks that entails. It's sometimes been a challenge for me to consider how much to share my own perspective, while I am so invested in validating the client's own experience and feelings. I am still learning (in the slow, internal, relational way we learn these things) that me sharing and being myself does not inherently impinge on others doing the same.
Blumenfeld challenged me in that respect, because of how he at times directly contradicted Annie's perspective, or overtly shared his own thoughts with her in their sessions. Yet it was clear that the trust and intimacy of their relationship added value to those actions. He was continually developing that trust by first being open to really understanding Annie's experience before interjecting--otherwise, he would have been more like the hurtful therapist Melanie, who thought she knew Annie's needs better than Annie herself (even my first, blue notes there say, "NOPE!"). For me, Annie's impressions of Blumenfeld's reactions make me curious about what opportunities there may be for me to share more of my inner responses with my clients in therapy. I do this some, but am certain there is more to mine from this relational resource.
That risk of being real, for me, as with all of us, is part of my life outside the therapy room, too. I'm grateful for my friends and supervisors who give me the space to keep discovering myself and taking those risks, which are the same and new each day. I'm grateful for friends who let me try out new ways of being more spontaneous and sharing new parts of myself, and who show me those parts of themselves, too.
As a final thought that feels present, Annie's writing about goodbyes also especially touched me, because I've been having more goodbyes in my work recently, just from the natural flow of client needs and the ways their lives change. Some people I've worked with for quite a while, or have shared some intimate conversations with, have moved on to new stages. And in some cases, the goodbyes have been unexpected and impossible to do in person. In these cases, I feel doubt about whether I'm doing enough to make those transitions meaningful and caring for my clients. I am resting on the hope that my care can come through in our final phone calls, or that when even phone calls can't happen, that the love and regard I've shown them throughout our time together will continue to be felt when we no longer see each other. They will stay with me, and I hope good things from our time will stay with them.
When Annie talks about counselors and clients remembering each other, I thought that it goes beyond a cognitive remembering: it's a memory that becomes part of how we see ourselves and relate to others, becoming a piece in the construction below our awareness of how we see the world. When truly genuine and impactful, the memory of a therapeutic relationship can be subtle and internal; that's how I think it's able to heal similarly sneaky relational injuries like trauma. Annie says that clients lose something of these benefits if therapists don't let them know that they affect us. I want to offer my clients that kind of real relationship that can offer that kind of real healing--and the way for me to do it is by offering more genuineness within that relationship, hour by hour and moment by moment. Thank goodness for supervision to help bring my attention back to this core when it wanders or when my own old injuries sneak in and try to guide me again. It is also helpful to remember that my hurts help me connect to my clients' hurts, and I can even offer them that. In some way, maybe everything can feed that relationship.
I've been a dancer all my life, and it has certainly meant many different things to me over the years. Along the way, I've also tried many different styles; every new style I have a chance to see or learn, I do. Recently it occurred to me that they may each mean something a little different to me. When I feel a need to move, I have my own improvisation vocabulary that's developed out of all these experiences, and yet there are definitely differences in the movements I need or discover at different times, and differences in what I've gained from each style over the years. So I thought I'd take some time to reflect on a top few styles and what they are to me...
Tap: My first style, tap is home to me. My studio as a kid excelled in tap, and everyone did it in addition to other styles they learned. It's a heritage connection to my earliest days in dance and to my Midwest roots where tap is strong. Today, tap is also my opportunity to be a little goofy; its a style with a sense of humor and freedom that I'm (ahem) tapping into more lately.
Modern: Modern is the style that taught me to bring myself and to take up space in the most authentic ways, always teaching me more about connecting inside and bringing it more fully outside. It naturally became my self-therapy when I first encountered it in undergrad, and has since been the way my improvisation looks when I need to move to process difficult or deep feelings. Modern is also how I move in prayer. Modern attuned me to my inner impetus to move. It means potential to do anything I need. It also reminds me of the beauty of all body types and ways of moving, including mine.
Ballet: This is the style that taught me to stand tall and proud, with gentle but repeated reminders from my instructor in college. It embraced my enjoyment of paying attention to the tiniest details of my movements to seek accuracy and grace, while also challenging me to let go and try to take up more space and move bigger. Ballet also helped me learn and practice the kinds of care my body needs after a good workout: foam rolling and ice.
West African: This style is the embodiment of FUN! It's free-flinging, energetic, grounded yet airborne, and always moving. Hints of West African pervade my just-for-fun dancing to just about any music style. West African dance also urges me to respect its cultural roots by connecting with others spontaneously in dance circles that follow the traditions of the style.
Those are the styles I've spent the most time in, getting to know myself in them. There are quite a few others... jazz, swing, Irish step, contemporary/lyrical, aerial, hip hop, and a touch of tango and Bollywood. Thinking of these styles, I see how they have been opportunities to experiment and get in touch with new parts of myself that each style highlights, so as a group they certainly represent this. There are many more styles I hope to learn, and I hope to always be dancing and growing through dance, so altogether, to me dance means potential!
Recently I've felt inclined to using nature imagery and metaphors in counseling. I think it is helped by a recent trip to California and some time at the beach this summer, among other adventures in the past few years. While I have been in these spaces, it's been a very embodied experience, so these things come back with me and are rekindled when clients share experiences with feelings that resonate viscerally as I empathize with them.
These images arise naturally as I listen to and feel along with clients, and I look to share them as a form of reflection of what the client is sharing. Knowing that not all of my clients have had the privilege of travel or much time in nature, I try to describe the sensations of the natural image, and verbalize the metaphorical connections to the experience they are describing. Sometimes this is a very brief, passing exchange, and sometimes it is something the client hooks onto and that they may even take home with them to reflect on or expand upon.
One of the things about nature images that feels powerful to me is that it provides some concrete images of our human smallness and lack of power: standing in a dark cave, feeling lost and stubbing our toes looking for a tiny light to hint at a way out; being overcome by ocean waves that pull our body here and there, hoping for just a moment to catch our breath while another wave crashes over. These can resonate with experiences of uncertainty and overwhelm, and might even help me and the client recognize where they need care, or maybe something they can do to help themselves cope in their challenges.
Nature also provides us with calm, peaceful images that can help clients center: imagining ourselves under a warm sunbeam, with soft clouds overhead; feeling a gentle waterfall cascade over us to help the stress fall from our muscles.
I wonder if this is one of the benefits that make time in nature beneficial to our wellbeing. Do we implicitly adopt images that can help us recognize how we feel? Do we internalize peaceful moments to benefit from later? Personally, I do, and I hope I can share some of that with my clients with these images and metaphors.
Something I've sought to convey to my students--be they career clients, res hall supervisees, or students in my classes--is to trust the deepest part of themselves. What I mean by this is that when these fabulous potential-full students feel unable to choose between many possible paths (what I remind them can be considered a "good problem") they can look at the patterns across their life experience to give grounding and direction. Their personality is the unifying thread between even seemingly disparate choices they've made over time.
I was gratified recently to see that someone else was able to phrase this more clearly than I may have been doing! Emilie Wapnick has created this inspiring blog and community, Puttylike, which focuses on the plight and possibility of multipotentialites. That is, people with many options, like my students! Though they may feel they are pulled in many directions, one of the options Emilie suggests for these folks (among a few other great ones) is the "group hug" approach to career, in which someone finds the meaningful intersections of their varied interests instead of just picking one. There's a great, short post by a Puttylike writer on the intersection option here. I agree with other posts on this site that these intersections are a space of creativity and bridging between parts--things I love and am drawn to, but which are challenging, too, especially for some.
The existence or meaningfulness of these intersections is not evident right up-front. It takes time to get to know yourself and to trust the deeper unity in yourself to see the validity and value of these sometimes-odd intersections within our varied expressions of ourselves (interests, values, even our personality). We may need to provide space for some creative wandering and exploration to imagine what these intersections may have to offer. In my experience, it's taken all the self-reflection investment afforded to me by nature of being a practicing counselor and career instructor to figure this out--which is to say, no small amount of time and reflection. (I practice things on myself before trying them on clients or students, so I've career-therapized myself quite a bit, as well as I can.)
I encourage those who feel they are many parts pieced together--like a "Frankenstein" as a client put it once--to seek to get beneath the perceptions and expectations of others (however subtle or well-ingrained in you) and to spend some time with your own self. And let it speak. Give it time to start to make sense, too; when we haven't been listening, these things might be easy to reject at first while we are still encumbered by lifelong lessons of what "won't work" or "is stupid." But these things are from far too intimate and valuable a source to take lightly or beat down. That's your inner compass; in there is YOU. And I hope we all get to meet more of YOU soon.
I hadn't danced in a while, but a couple months ago a friend told me about a place in town that offers low-commitment adult classes. I had previously only taken classes with the department at school, trusting them to teach technique for safety, and to keep me challenged. Unfortunately, grad school has interfered with my ability to keep up with that schedule, so a drop-in evening class is just the thing for me now!
The years of dancing in college was a great time in my life as a dancer, because the challenges the dance professors offered were not just physical, but emotional. And they embraced the challenges I set up for myself, too. I discovered the intersection of my lifelong love for dancing and my deepening commitment to learning and personal growth as part of helping others through an unlikely project. It was unlikely in that it was one of those fortunate accidents I've come to be more prepared for now. Back then, I thought it was going to be a disaster.
You know how the creative process goes... Step 1. This is awesome, Step 2. This is hard, Step 3. This is crap, Step 4. I am crap, Step 5. This might work, (then cycle back) Step 1: This is awesome (and by the end, add: I am awesome).
I experienced that all for the first time in this dance project I proposed. It was supposed to be a sort of empirical study of emotional reactions to dance stimuli (nerd alert!). Unfortunately, my original plan started falling through: audience members weren't responding as I'd hoped in feedback showings, and I realized I was terribly off track. I became anxious and had a constant fear of failure that lived in my stomach (I'd later name that feeling Thesis Guilt when I got to grad school). I was funded to be doing this project, which was a great honor. But that meant if I bailed I would owe back more money than an undergrad cares to part with. That threat was enough: there was no way out but forward. I'm grateful to the dancers who stuck with me through this challenging time, when I hadn't yet built the confidence I have today to manage a creative team or call myself a choreographer or researcher. In spite of that, I stuck to this fantasy of being a scientist-choreographer and gained a lot from it. I hope that I also gave to others through the results of this project.
Though in a very different way than I imagined, I essentially did what I had set out to do: make something in the meeting of my dance-minor and psych-major selves. In fact, I did it twice: I created both the original group work I had proposed to make, and out of all the emotion of that process I created a solo composed about and of personal growth that I'm still proud of to this day.
As my career clients and I often learn, there's sometimes already a name for the thing we thought we invented to fit our intersections. In this case, it's artistic inquiry, a kind of research not taught in my grad programs, but beautifully valuable in my experiences. The whole processes of this dance coming-of-age are already recorded in a blog I wrote during the experience at USPpsychdance.blogspot.com. (For kicks, you can also find my blog from my stint dancing in NYC at my2280pints.blogspot.com.)
After all of this amazing experience with dance, it's so much a part of me and how I've grown that I refuse to give it up. I learn and gain too much from it. It keeps my heart happy and creative, and is healing when I need that, too. So while I'm doing grad student stuff instead of taking morning ballet or mid-day modern in the studios of the UF School of Theater and Dance, I can still connect to the gifts of being embodied through weekly evening lessons at this in-town studio. It's been a perfect opportunity to get beyond technique and move into embracing time, space, motion, fun, and wellness. Those things were always there in dance, but each time school calls for a hiatus and I return, I re-meet dance as a new person, and dance brings me into even more new growth and fullness.
As I like to say, I'm a dancer in my heart and mind, even if I'm not dancing. But these days, I'm happy to say I'm both.