One question that I regularly hear from my principal/co-workers/family members/friends is:
“You take care of so many. Who takes care of you?”
It is not a secret that being a counselor can be an emotionally charged experience. A lot is shared with a counselor — happy stories, joyous experiences, celebrations, laughter. On the flip side — anger, hurt, resentment, fear, angst, really lousy situations. It takes a lot of balance for a counselor to practice empathy while also keeping up a shield and working through emotion without making it your own. This is a skill that is hard to perfect (and many never do).
Over the years of my professional development and practice, I have been able to identify a handful of ways to refresh, recharge, and release. This helps me to achieve an optimal balance of demonstrating empathy while maintaining a tough skin so as to serve others. While my five strategies might not work for all, they might provide a good jumping off point for developing your own self-care plan.
1. Find Your Release. Everybody has something that brings them peace. Running. Writing. Dancing. Cooking. Riding horses. Silence. Music. Family. Organizing. Whatever it is that makes you feel the most calm and full of solace is your release. It is the activity that you can get lost in and before long, all your thoughts seem to disappear. When it’s been a particularly bad day, make sure you engage in that activity. Spend time “doing” and soon you will realize that the “thinking” has subsided.
2. Just do you. Spend time reflecting. Counseling should be reflective in nature both for participant and practitioner. In my experience counselors are highly skilled at helping other people be reflective but spend limited time reflecting on themselves. Reflect on why this one day/event/issue might have had more weight for you. Reflect on why this conversation triggered you or impacted you in the way it did. Reflect on what you could do differently to work through the issue without bringing it home with you. Reflect. Reflect. Reflect.
3. Get comfortable with “no.” When your plate is full and you are starting to feel like you are losing your balance, say NO. Turn down an offer for something. Tell your team you need some support. Tell a teacher/parent/student that his/her request will have to wait for a bit. It’s okay to choose how you invest your time. Learn the power of saying “no” and feel yourself re-balancing.
4. Identify safe people. These are the people in your life who support you, love you, want to spend time with you because they appreciate you as you — not you as counselor. They do not need an explanation of your day or emotions. They are happy to engage with you and remind you that there is more to your life than your professional self. Identify those individuals and seek them out. Talk about anything and everything but work and then thank that individual for allowing you to be your best self.
5. When all else fails, just _______ (Fill in the blank): Drink coffee, go for a walk, cry, laugh, get angry, run, bake (and eat) cookies. Sometimes the best way to achieve balance is to just rid yourself of the emotional charge you are carrying. You know what makes you feel better — even if you feel a little worse, first — so do it. Release and move through it.
A counselor cannot effectively care for others without first caring for him/herself. If you take care of yourself and find strategies that work to keep you balanced, your practice will be productive and you will be able to maintain taking care of others.