Even Carl Rogers is quoted as saying, ‘I have always been better at caring for and looking after others than I have in caring for myself,’ before adding, ‘but in these later years, I have made progress.’1 As a newly qualified counsellor, figuring out what it takes to care for myself so that I can have a career doing what I’ve spent so long working towards has not been easy. I went into this job to help others, to care for others, as I am sure is true for most of those who choose this type of work. It is a challenge to give to ourselves what we give to others so freely. But we have to be able to give to ourselves first, without feeling selfish, if we are to be able to give freely to others.
While I was studying for my counselling degree, I learnt some hard lessons about self-care, and about how easily life can become messed up when you think you’ve got it sorted. Trying to juggle too many things at once – assignments, placement hours, staying on top of the bills and having a family and social life – became too much for me and I stopped caring for myself altogether. After a break, which I found hard to accept I needed, I researched and wrote a paper about self-care and burnout.
What I learnt from the research is hardly new, but I needed to realise it for myself. I am not the only counsellor to struggle to give myself the care I need. The BACP Ethical Framework includes care for self within the six core principles that underpin our work as counsellors, placed under ‘self-respect’.2 It states that we need resilience in order to be able to work with our clients’ difficulties without being personally diminished as humans, as well as counsellors.3 But too often we want a quick fix, including in our self-care; we don’t seem to realise that self-care is a lifelong journey and integral to the life we chose when we decided to work in counselling.4
In an article for the US journal Counseling Today, Lori Puterbaugh5 explores how newly qualified counsellors in particular often give only superficial attention to self-care, and regard it solely in terms of making time for leisure activities. Leisure time is important, she writes, but it is not enough to sustain us in work where so much is given and little is received. Puterbaugh argues that inner work is just as important, if not more important, than letting off steam, unwinding or laughing till your sides hurt.
At my lowest point, when I was really struggling, I didn’t even have the capacity to laugh. This was when I found that self-care isn’t just about what many assume: massages, pedicures, swimming every day, the host of hobbies and activities described in the regular self-care column in Therapy Today. It isn’t even having regular therapy. Sometimes, self-care is simply allowing yourself to do nothing, and not feel guilty about it. It’s about learning to listen to what your own body, your own self, needs. If I had already put in place the strategies I have since developed for myself, I would not have suffered as I did. In this, I agree with what Puterbaugh says – it’s about what’s happening inside you.5
Finding a balance
Only when I understood the importance of listening to myself and my needs was I able to start to figure out my self-care balance. I say start, because this is definitely an ongoing and fluid project. Figuring out that I don’t have to play by everyone else’s rules was the first thing that helped me the most. As counsellors, we treat everyone as individuals, but often seem to forget that we are individuals too. Self-care will be different for each of us. Finding the balance that fits our own uniqueness is part of the self-care journey – that too is something I have had to learn. What has been hard is giving myself permission to do what I feel I need to do; to listen to the ‘voice’ that comes from within me and not to the voices of colleagues, tutors or other well-meaning people. They don’t know how I feel or what I need in the same way that I do.
The next challenge has been to figure out the balance between the outer work (leisure activities) and the inner work – and how to differentiate between them.6 In the 1980s and 1990s, a number of research papers were written on the correlation between wellness and leisure. To my mind, if the need for leisure activities is not met first, it is more difficult to attend to the inner work, in whatever form that takes. For me, depending on how I am feeling and what my body is telling me, leisure activities range from running and yoga to sitting on the sofa eating chocolate and watching mindless TV. And I am coming to accept that all of these different forms of leisure are acceptable, if that is what I need at that moment. Elizabeth Brownlee7 conducted a small study of trainee counsellors, asking what self-care was to them. The counsellors were all critical of their own ability to self-care, but also felt guilty for doing it at all. However, I note that, like me, they often settled for escapist TV.
Finding a balance in the quality of self-care we give ourselves as counsellors can also feel like a pressure in itself, and one I have experienced. There may be barriers to self-care, including time and financial pressures, but I have found that, if I can just give myself a break from what I am ‘supposed’ to be doing, that in itself can be self-care. Completing quite ordinary tasks, like doing the vacuuming, can be self-care by expending some of the agitation I may feel. I recognise that my self-care goes in cycles, and that it very much depends on what else is happening in my life. And when I am at my most tired, just sitting on the sofa can be self-care.
The inner work is something that I have dipped in and out of for many years, and now it includes the work I do with my supervisor. Attending regular supervision is another of our ethical obligations as counsellors. Having that support and outlet and knowing that is your professional safe space is an invaluable part of your self-care and your care for your clients. Having a space where I can release what I carry from my counselling is something I am constantly grateful for.
Lacrecia Dangerfield has specialised in counsellor support for many years and says it is the counsellors who feel unsupported who are most likely to fail and burn out.8 She argues that nourishing yourself, making yourself a priority, reminding yourself why you do this work by taking the time to care for you, is as important as the work we do with others.
This nourishment can come from many sources, including personal therapy, which can be easily overlooked. I have read numerous articles by experienced counsellors who have said that, when personal trauma arrived in their lives, they found they didn’t have the tools to cope with it. One counsellor9 said he had reasoned that he had been through so much personal therapy during his training, he thought he had done enough, but he came to recognise that, by not having personal therapy, he was not maintaining his ongoing mental health, and that was stopping him growing. He developed a self-care mantra: ‘Eat right, sleep tight and get reasonable exercise.’
Clearly, this works for him, but to me it feels like more pressure – one more thing to balance when things get difficult. When I am struggling, all I want to do is eat and sleep, but maybe that’s OK too? Giving yourself permission to do what is necessary in those times can be as much self-care as can be managed.
What we do in our downtime is important, even if it is simply the times between clients. Counsellors have described the value in grounding rituals, especially after a difficult session.10 Symbolically shaking off the energy by washing your hands, doing simple breathing exercises, and even juggling can all help to alleviate the distress of the session and prepare us for the next. Careful scheduling – clustering certain clients together so you aren’t having to make huge leaps in mindset between them, and above all ensuring that there is enough time between sessions to relax, so we are able to be present for each, to our fullest capacity – is also part of self-care.3
The quality of time away from client work is also important, and often involves other people – people with whom we choose to share our personal lives. This was Maslach’s conclusion,11 after 40 years of research: the most important factor in the quality of counsellor care is the human relationships that they have outside their working life. These are the people we have fun with and enjoy our lives with. These are the people who keep us grounded, who have our backs, every day. Throughout my training, and now post-qualification, I know I would not have got through without the support of my children, my partner and my friends. It is again about finding the balance, knowing when you want and need the support they provide, and knowing when you need to take time to be alone.
For me, this inner work and meditation were what saved me when I was at my lowest. The stereotype of sitting cross-legged and chanting ‘ohm’ has its place, and I can’t deny I have done some of that in the past, on a retreat, and loved it. But day to day, living in a house with children and animals as I do, it isn’t practical, and also isn’t for everyone. I have always been an early bird, so it seems obvious to take advantage of this time, while the rest of the house sleeps. I don’t even have to get out of my bed… I reach for my headphones, switch on my meditation app on my phone, and follow the prompts given to me by the soothing voice in my ear. I have a busy mind so the suggestion that I clear my head to find peace creates even more stress and pressure, and surely undoes all the good work I’m trying to do by meditating in the first place. Why make it harder than it needs to be?
And isn’t that the crux of it? Why make it harder than it needs to be? I chose to do this work because I felt it was where I was meant to be, as cheesy as that sounds. It’s a second career for me and, as a single parent, juggling all the aspects of my life and the lives of my children, self-care should not be yet another pressure to add to my burden, as well as the inevitable demands of the work we do. But we can choose that it doesn’t.
We work with people, all day, every day, and that is challenging at times. But I know from experience, even at this early stage, that I need to put myself and my wellbeing first. I am grateful that I have learned the importance of establishing good self-care. It may, at times, be a challenge to remember this, but I know that, if I give myself permission to be there for me, I stand a better chance of enjoying a long career in my much-loved profession. I hope one day to look back over many years, as Carl Rogers did, and congratulate myself on making some progress!
Having completed her BA in person-centred counselling, Natalie Carter has recently embarked on an MA in Counselling and Psychotherapy Practice. She is also trained in hypnotherapy and spiritual counselling. She has been in private practice since 2015 and works part-time for a large EAP in Manchester. She is a single mother with two sons, who are the light of her life and keep her going. She is deeply interested in counsellor welfare and self-care, and plans to continue to research in this area.
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2. BACP. Ethical Framework for the counselling professions. Lutterworth: BACP; 2018.
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6. Grafanaki S, Pearson D, Cini F et al. Sources of renewal: a qualitative study on the experience and role of leisure in the life of counsellors and psychologists. Counselling Psychology Quarterly 2005; 18(1): 31-40.
7. Brownlee E. How do counsellors view and practise self-care? Healthcare Counselling & Psychotherapy Journal 2016; 16(2): 15–17.
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11. Maslach C. The cost of caring. Los Altos, CA: Major Books; 2015.