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.