Article Published: 10/25/2023
The nature of the work of counselors puts them at risk for developing compassion fatigue and burnout. Self-care is essential not only for our health and well-being, but also for providing the best care for clients. Julius A. Austin, PhD, NCC, LPC, who coauthored the book Counselor Self-Care, recently spoke with us about changing the way we think about taking care of ourselves and why it’s more important than many of us realize.
How can we begin to reframe the way we view self-care, as a necessity rather than as an indulgence?
Self-care transitioned from an indulgence to a necessity for me when my very survival depended on it. I, like many other counselors, took on the mentality of putting others’ needs before mine. But when that mentality began to slowly erode my ability to be attentive to my clients, to my family, and to myself—I felt depleted. In our book Counselor Self-Care, my coauthors and contributing authors (Gerald Corey, EdD, ABPP; Michelle Muratori, PhD; and Jude T. Austin II, PhD, LPC, LMFT, CCMHC) echoed the fact that if we do not take care of ourselves, then we will not be able to care for others. Self-care needs to be a necessity because if it’s not, there is a potential that we may cause harm to our clients.
This harm may not present itself in the grand unethical scenarios that our professors used as cautionary tales in our ethics courses; this harm will insidiously penetrate the fabric of the therapeutic relationship. It may manifest itself in a counselor consistently showing up a couple of minutes late for sessions, forgetting details of client stories, or even celebrating when no-shows or cancellations happen.
Many of us have personal routines—going to the gym, reading, hobbies, etc.—and don’t realize they can be forms of self-care. How can counselors be more intentional and mindful when they take time for themselves?
The idea that counselors must “take time for themselves” is wild. Our time is our own. Even in session, we have the tendency to view that time as someone else’s. Sure, we are in the room with another/others, but that time is still an opportunity to care for ourselves. By being attentive to our needs, we can ensure that we are focusing on our breathing, we can focus on sitting in a comfortable position or making adjustments when needed, we can be attentive to the pacing of the session and slowing our speech, or asking the client to slow down so that we can ensure that we capture all of the client’s story, we can be attentive to the lighting in the room, even to the smell in the room in some cases. Those things may seem mundane, but they are acts of self-care, nonetheless.
What’s the best advice you’ve received about self-care, and how has it helped?
“Stop trying so hard.” It sounds simple, but it’s very difficult to do. I tended to be an all-or-nothing type of self-carer: “I’m not just going on a diet, I am only eating chicken and broccoli, and I’ll work out twice a day.” When I stopped trying so hard to meet the perceived expectations of what I thought self-care was and kept things simple, I was able to build more consistent self-care habits.
Self-care can be physical, social, emotional, and spiritual. What are your most helpful self-care measures, even when you only have a few minutes?
Here are a few self-care measures I do throughout the day when I have back-to-back clients, meetings, and lectures: Stay consistently hydrated, actually wear my glasses during session and close my eyes during the minutes in between sessions, take online sessions standing up, use a standing desk (before I had a standing desk, I stacked books until my laptop was leveled with my face), and check my texts/emails in case I need to respond to my wife or have missed a call from my kids’ school.
If I have a bit longer than a few minutes, I recently have been checking in with my body for tension I held during the last session and doing intentional stretching. I have been noticing that I am rolling my shoulders forward in sessions dealing with depressive symptoms, so I try to remember to spread my arms and take deep breaths in between sessions so that my posture can open up a bit.
Sometimes self-care may relieve stress temporarily but not address the root of what may be causing it. What are some of the warning signs that a counselor may need to ask for help in this area?
Having poor boundaries with clients, being unethically behind on case notes, consistently rescheduling with clients or missing sessions, and/or having unstable relationships with others outside of session, but it goes a bit deeper than these warning signs. Not a single one of us can care for ourselves consistently all alone. I welcome help at all times from other clinicians and peers whom I trust to hold me accountable with my self-care, to check in with me, with no judgment, when I am not caring for myself.
I start every class with, “So, how are y’all taking care of yourselves?” so that my students can come in every week with something to say. If we adopt the concept of asking for help when we need it, it will create a yo-yo effect where we are in good health until we are not, we ask for help, we get back into good health, until we are not, we ask for help again, and so on. Being in this profession demands consistent support from our trusted peers and colleagues.
In addition to your books, are there any self-care resources you’d recommend for counselors?
At the risk of sounding self-promotional, My brother, Dr. Jude Austin, and I have a podcast called “The Twin Therapists Podcast,” where we have honest conversations about doing counseling in a very raw and revealing way. It’s not necessarily about our specific podcast, but the act of having open, honest, and raw conversations about what we see in our rooms with someone you trust is immensely important to self-care. There are so many things outside of reading that counselors can use to care for themselves: learning a new language, checking out MasterClass.com and learning how to cook or garden, watching ASMR videos on YouTube, journaling, going on a photo walk, cleaning out a junk drawer, stretching, and/or downloading the Headspace app, just to name a few.
Julius A. Austin, PhD, NCC, LPC, is a former collegiate and professional athlete who earned his PhD in Counselor Education and Supervision from the University of Wyoming. Dr. Austin has been a clinician and educator for over 10 years. He is currently in private practice in Lafayette, Louisiana, and is an Assistant Professor in the counseling program at Grand Canyon University. He is also the coauthor of the books Counselor Self-Care; Surviving and Thriving in Your Counseling Program; The Counselor Educator’s Guide: Practical In-Class Strategies and Activities; and his latest book, Doing Counseling: Developing Your Clinical Skills and Style, published by the American Counseling Association.
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