by Helen Hsu
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” —Audre Lorde
After 20 years of clinical work, compartmentalizing my personal and professional life had become second nature. As an intern it was oft difficult to leave the abuse reports, the hospitalizations, the hair-rending frustrations of Medicaid paperwork, lingering psychosis symptoms and tragedies at the office. As I became a clinical supervisor and opened a private practice, I perfected my self- care shift routine. I would shift my mindspace into my personal life, doff my “therapist outfit”, send a mental karma blessing to my clients and then proceed toward the workouts or family time that sustain me. Every few years our family would be hit with a personal tragedy, and I cognitively reframed the pain and losses into tools that aided my empathy and groundedness as a therapist.
Lately the experience of being a clinician has taken on an unprecedented intensity and pace. Like most of you, I have lost count of the number of times I have shared resources such as the APA resources for Coping with Mass Shootings and the Compassionate Friends guides about grieving.
I find myself personally impacted as each population of clients, loved ones, and community is threatened and assaulted. The hits close to home now occur weekly, not yearly. I have felt unhealthy levels of anger, fear, resentment, and teetered perilously close to burn out as I crammed extra client sessions into my calendar.
One of my favorite phrases to clients goes something like this:
“As we continue our evolution as lifelong learners, periodically we find that we need more coping skills and tools. It’s a normal part of life that as it changes we will find we need to add to new things to our coping menu or toolbox.”
Clinicians, maybe we can reclaim the practices of self-care. Not the self-indulgent dreck being packaged on Instagram as self -care (bubble baths, wine, celebrity gossip, retail therapy) which might have a place in our leisure time, but is not the self-preservation Audre Lorde spoke of, is not the soul-feeding, hope-stoking, reserves-filling resilience being called upon in these times for the helping professional. I spend a generous chunk of my free time volunteering in professional associations or as a mentor. I find that being around brilliant, good-hearted people, many clearly destined for distinction, reconstitutes hope and a lightness of joy into a world perspective currently bogged down in dread.
As we near Thanksgiving, and what will be a slight workload respite, I hope you will take the time to assess what self-preservation practices you can add to help keep you healthy and moored in these tumultuous times.