Self-care takes guts. For the last 18 years, I’ve been taking care of people professionally. And, I’m finally beginning to understand why it’s so damn hard to put yourself first.
You might be surprised to learn that I am a Psychotherapist. After giving 10 years to the NHS (and the NHS giving me many things in return), I left to start up a private practice. Despite being ready for the change, it was also frightening. Here’s why.
Moving into private practice gave me more freedom and opportunities to be creative. But, it also took away my community and a stable income. Excited at the chance to build a business, I got stuck in.
This was both good and bad for me. I learned lots and for someone who thrives on learning new things, it was a good match. On the other hand, without the usual parameters of a start and finish time that goes with employment, I could easily work more than 50 hours a week. As a new father, sleep deprived and knackered, that didn’t match quite so well.
The Loneliness of the Independent Practitioner
Working independently is more isolating than NHS work. Apart from seeing clients, you can go days or weeks without any interaction with your fellow therapists. That’s hard.
When I got started, I signed up with lots of agencies to give me the best chances of getting enough clients. However, after doing that for a couple of years, I began to dislike many of those working relationships. Significant power imbalances between the agency and I meant that I often felt pressured or bullied into being the ‘dutiful’ supplier. I felt like I had the responsibilities of being an employee without benefiting from any of the protections.
As well as client work, I needed to run a business. I needed to organize myself and having never run a business before, I was alarmingly aware of how much I didn’t know and needed to learn fast. These uncertainties aren’t easy to manipulate. And the anxieties filled me with chronic stress. I’m surprised I haven’t ground my teeth away with all the jaw tension it created.
What I’ve come to realise is that my struggle wasn’t just the effects of my circumstances. It was also about my inflexibility. My busyness was sometimes productive. And, it had a cost…or two! I could get irritable. Much to the gratitude of my family, they could experience me as distant, snappy and disinterested.
When I look back to reflect on why I did this, it’s not too difficult to understand. In part, because I haven’t eliminated it completely. Thankfully, my skills as a psychotherapist have helped me to figure it out.
All the keeping busy was protecting me from something painful. It was shielding me from the fear of failure. It was shielding me from the shame of being inadequate. To slow down and work less hard, meant facing these emotions. As you can imagine, I didn’t always jump at the opportunity.
Learning to self-care before I reach exhaustion
Sometimes, self-care is easy. When you’re exhausted with nothing left to give, it can be more straightforward. You recognise that carrying on will make matters worse and now is the time to act. The rest of the time, self-care means prioritising yourself. It means practising self-compassion.
My journey towards greater self-compassion has been slower than for many others. Distinct from my learning about mindfulness, which I embraced much more fully, my openness to self-compassion has been back and forth.
This changed when I started reading Russell Kolts. In his work with construction workers in the US, he developed the term ‘true-strength’ to make self-compassion more palatable and relevant for those he was helping.
What’s become clearer to me ever since, as I’ve read, watched or spoken with the likes of Mary Welford, Kristin Neff and Brené Brown, is that self-compassion begins with courage.
Courage is the first step in self-care and self-compassion. True, deep and meaningful self-care means turning towards pain, discomfort and distress. It means making space for vulnerability.
For years, I’ve invited my clients to be vulnerable and to openly receive my care, warmth and compassion. More recently, I’ve realised that it would be helpful if I too were practising vulnerability. Not merely in my personal life or in clinical supervision, but every day. Every day in small ways. A regular practice.
In times gone by, I routinely wore a mask; one that showed the parts of me that I wanted others to see. Throughout my 30s, I worked more intentionally, to wear my own face. This brought me closer to discomfort. It has been scary and painful. It hurts. And yet, it is infinitely more fulfilling. I feel closer and more connected to my family and my colleagues. I feel more able to help my clients as I practice daily exercises of self-compassion.
I’ve learned to treat self-compassion as a choice. It’s not a rule. I don’t tell myself “I have to be self-compassionate”. That’s not loving or flexible. My intention is this. Each day, I will put aside 5 minutes to be vulnerable. One way I do this, is through an exercise called Self-Enquiry, which is a central feature of Radically Open Dialetical Behaviour Therapy (DBT). It’s an exercise where I practice asking myself good questions that steer me towards my ‘edge’, the place where I feel uncomfortable. It’s the place where I can learn to be more open, flexible and self-aware.
To learn more about this method, you and I can get together online for a webinar. I’ll share with you the few ways I’ve learned to practice daily self-care. This new way of being more self-compassionate was built by putting aside just 5 minutes a day. That’s all you need to effectively take care of yourself, reduce your stress and protect against burnout.
Based on an adapted version of the Self-Practice / Self-Reflection approach developed by Bennett-Levy that incorporates Self-Enquiry, you’ll discover some methods that will benefit you both personally and professionally.
Come and join us. Get connected with some other private practitioners. We’re meeting on Friday 6th July from 11am to 12.30pm. Tickets are just £25.
This workshop will also be running at BABCP conference in Glasgow from 18th to 20th July 2018.