It’s well-known that counselors and healthcare workers should be regularly engaging in self-care as part of their personal and professional well-being. Self-care can help mitigate the risk of burnout, and it’s also important for protecting your self-esteem, boosting your happiness, and managing your overall emotional health.
Unfortunately, even though counselors are quick to recommend self-care for their clients, they don’t always practice what they preach. Life gets busy, time feels limited, and you may feel too exhausted to look after your own needs. Here are some considerations to keep in mind.
How Much Self-Care Does a Counselor Need?
There isn’t a universal set number of hours someone should engage in self-care. Instead, it’s important to consider how you generally look after your mental health. Do you regularly make time to nurture your needs? Do you have things in life that you regularly look forward to doing? Do you know how to turn off work and engage in your personal life?
If you’re not sure, it may be beneficial to ask yourself these questions:
- Do I allow myself to rest when I feel I need rest?
- Do I make time for my personal relationships?
- Do I feel I’m adequately looking after my physical health?
- Do I enjoy my life most of the time?
- Do I know what makes me feel happy?
- Do I know how to separate my professional identity from my personal one?
If you answer no to some or most of these questions, it may be possible that you’re lacking in effective self-care. This isn’t inherently your fault- we live in a society where most of us feel pressured to grind, perform, and impress others. Self-care can feel like an afterthought, especially when you’re crunched for time or resources.
Assess What’s Preventing You From Engaging in Self-Care
If you struggle to implement self-care into your life, it’s important to identify your own barriers. In other words, how are you getting in your own way? While everyone has unique reasons, here are some common obstacles that may affect your ability to practice self-care:
Limited time: It’s no secret that counselors often feel overworked. When your days are full of seeing clients, managing crises, and completing paperwork, it’s hard to set aside time to nurture your own needs. Time can feel especially strained when you consider the need to take care of your family, complete chores, and finish everyday tasks. However, it’s also important to consider your time-sucks. For example, research shows that people, on average, spend 151 minutes using social media and 3 hours watching TV each day (1, 2).
Limited money: People often assume that practicing self-care means spending money. And while many activities (i.e. getting a massage) can be costly, it’s important to remember that there are also plenty of ways to look after yourself without spending a cent.
Low self-esteem: Some people struggle to practice self-care because they don’t think they deserve to take care of themselves. Low self-esteem can be a symptom of many issues, including trauma or mental health conditions like depression or anxiety. It can be helpful to remember that engaging in self-care can be one of the simplest and most effective ways to build a loving relationship with yourself.
Feeling like it doesn’t make a difference: You may not practice self-care because, even if you’ve tried to do so in the past, you didn’t think it helped very much. However, it’s possible that you weren’t engaging in the right kind of self-care. Everyone has different needs, and just because one person feels better after a long run doesn’t mean the same results will apply to you.
Fears about being selfish: Some people don’t engage in self-care because they assume that it’s selfish, greedy, or vain. This can be due to cultural or familial pressures. If, for example, you grew up in an environment where people worked very hard with no downtime, you might naturally believe that’s how you’re supposed to function. It’s important to remember that some of the most selfless people can be generous because they regularly fill their own emotional cups. It’s hard to lovingly take care of others when you don’t look after yourself.
Personal Self-Care Ideas for Counselors
Self-care comes in all shapes and sizes, and no one method works effectively for everyone. It may be helpful to start a working list of self-care strategies you can refer to when you need an emotional break.
Plan a Staycation
It’s often recommended that people take time off work to recharge emotionally. While glamorous vacations certainly have their merit, there’s also something to be said about the benefits of staycations. They require less planning, money, and logistical concerns.
Better yet, research shows that anticipating positive moments may elicit even more happiness than the event itself(3). Simply planning your itinerary can be its own form of self-care.
Spend 1-2 Hours a Week Learning a New Skill
Many people have a bucket list, whether it’s in their heads or written down. You have probably identified certain things you want to do in this lifetime. And even though you might assume you’ll get around to doing them someday, why not start implementing some of that novelty in your life right now?
Remember that you don’t need to throw yourself at any one skill to reap the benefits. One or two hours a week can give you motivation, boost your happiness, and inspire a sense of creativity. You may even enjoy it more if the skill is social, such as playing a sport or taking an art class.
Solidify Plans With A Loved One
We are social creatures, and we tend to thrive when we feel connected and supported by other people. It’s important that you prioritize your personal relationships, and that means investing in your friends and family.
Take the initiative to make plans in the next week or so with someone you care about. It doesn’t need to be anything extravagant- even meeting up for coffee or having dinner together can charge your emotional batteries.
Commit to a Daily Gratitude Practice
Many people find that gratitude is an essential part of their self-care. When you practice gratitude regularly, you harness a deeper appreciation for all the small joys in life. You’re able to maintain a sense of perspective when things get rough, and this can build an important resilience that can carry you through difficult moments.
There are many ways to cultivate a gratitude practice, and you may want to try one of the following options:
- Write down 3 to 5 things that you’re grateful for each day
- Ask each family member to share the best part of their day at dinner
- Write a thank-you letter or send a heartfelt text to someone you appreciate
- Every time you do something that you feel proud of, write it down on a slip of paper and put it in a jar. This can become your own self-esteem jar.
Incorporate 5 Minutes of Meditation Each Day
There’s a good chance that you recommend meditation to your clients, but how often do you practice mindfulness in your own life? Research shows that brief, daily meditation can significantly improve your mood, emotional regulation, attention, and memory(4).
Start by setting aside a few minutes each day to meditate. You can either close your eyes and take several deep breaths. Or, you can follow a guided script. Remember that there’s no such thing as meditating perfectly. You will have different thoughts emerge, and that’s normal. When distractions happen, simply try to return to the breath.
Professional Self-Care Ideas for Counselors
If you feel apathetic or resentful at work, you may be struggling with professional burnout. Unfortunately, this is a common phenomenon among counselors. That said, it is possible to treat burnout, and the earlier you focus on improving your symptoms, the better your outlook will likely be. Here are some tips to keep in mind.
Reevaluate Your Work-Life Boundaries
It’s hard to enjoy your life when you feel like you can never turn off work. But no matter your role, you still need to prioritize time for your own personal well-being. If you’re constantly checking emails or fielding phone calls, you’ll remain feeling distracted.
Spend some time considering if you need to change any boundaries. For example, is there a possibility to work remotely one day a week? Can you designate a specific time when you stop checking emails? Can you establish a protocol for clients in emergencies so they don’t reach out to you when you’re unavailable? Are there assignments you can delegate to other team members?
Assess Your Need for Supervision
All counselors can benefit from professional mentorship, and supervision provides the collaborative opportunity to review your work and expand your skill set. This relationship is significant at every point of your career, but it can be especially necessary when you’re new.
Depending on your professional license, you may already need to meet with a supervisor. But even if you are no longer required to have supervision, it may be beneficial to meet with someone to discuss conceptualization, countertransference, and other therapy-related issues.
Ask For a Raise
Money stress can affect your ability to feel motivated on the job. With that, it is discouraging to feel inadequately compensated for your hard work.
You may be at a point where it’s beneficial to ask for a raise. Before you do this, remember that having concrete evidence always helps. Organize all your recent achievements, including any positive feedback, client retention rates, or company-based accomplishments.
It’s important to think about how your specific role has directly benefited your employer or company. You should also consider what you intend to bring moving forward.
Join a Consultation Group
Being a counselor can get lonely, even if you enjoy your interactions with coworkers. Consultation groups provide a sense of peer support and professional guidance. They can also be invaluable when you need feedback on what to do with a particular client.
You can find a peer consultation group by first tapping into your social network. If you use social media, there’s a good chance you can find a local group by checking in on Facebook or LinkedIn. Many therapist professional organizations also have community boards where members post about groups.
Take an Intensive Training
Expanding your clinical expertise may help you feel more inspired in your work. If counseling is feeling stale, consider getting certified in a specialty or population that appeals to you. The training will expose you to a new way of thinking, and you will also increase your professional network.
(If you are already a MedCircle Member, leverage our robust community of professionals and mental health advocates.)
Although this can be a costly and even time-consuming self-care option, many people find such professional investments to be worth it. The training may pay off by securing you more clients or making you more attractive to potential employers in the future.
Self-care isn’t just a series of arbitrary activities. It’s a mindset that prioritizes looking after your needs and ensuring that you take care of your physical and mental health. It’s especially important for counselors, who are at a higher risk of burnout and compassion fatigue, to build self-care into their lives. The more you take care of yourself, the more effectively you can take care of your clients.