'I’M A THERAPIST AND I HAVE HOLES IN MY KNICKERS'
I was recently asked if I could write a feature on self-care, a subject which I must be extremely knowledgeable about, what with being a counsellor working in private practice and all.
Several years ago I experienced complete burnout which culminated in three months off sick and a strange and meandering escape to Madeira where I roamed the cobbled streets (largely weeping) and sat in bars pontificating the futility of existence through a large sangria fishbowl.
At the time things had been pretty tough; working a 40-hr week at a hospice whilst simultaneously juggling my master’s degree, grieving for my Mum, grieving for my Nana and coming out of a long-term head-fuddling relationship.
By some cruel twist of fate every appointment I needed to make was at a different cardinal point thus for three years I spent my entire life circumnavigating the Manchester sodding Ring Road. Anyway, all that is behind me because now I get to choose MY working hours. I am the boss.
I start to examine the contents of my world and have a sneaky suspicion that I have all the necessary ingredients to create something most bodacious only all in the wrong quantities. I had envisioned my jubilant post rat-race work-life-balance as an elegant ballerina effortlessly pirouetting - instead I feel more ‘smooshed in the moshpit’ in my clumpy Doc Martens.
Although I have now eradicated the Phileas Fogg component to my life I realise how I am essentially stuck in the same old patterns. My free time in the week (or rather the 2-hrs I have left at the end of each day) are generally spent preparing for the following day – washing and ironing things, eating things, organising things, staring blankly into the abyss, breathing - those kind of fascinating activities. By 8pm I have no real desire to have conversations with humans or giggle in fancy wine bars like they do on the telly.
My listening ears are slumped, dishevelled and closed for essential maintainance.
I’m sure there are millions of us going through the same daily repetition (work, rinse, repeat) quietly recognising that this fast-paced lifestyle just isn’t going to end well. I recently heard about a gentleman in the social-care profession who assiduously helped others his entire working career only to suffer an enormous debilitating stroke two weeks after he retired.
They rammed the concept of self-care down our necks at University with our corduroy-wearing lecturers banging on about their extended camping trips to Outer Mongolia or doing guerrilla bloody gardening work. When I get a free minute I just about manage to squeeze one out.
I have become a battery hen. I remember that there’s been a note on the fridge since Christmas: ‘BUY NEW UNDERWEAR.’ Instead I live in a constant state of dangerously loose knicker-elastic.
When you read about self-neglect it might seem like something which doesn’t really apply to you but honestly, how many of us ‘forget’ to eat breakfast because we’re in a rush, sit at our desks over lunchbreaks (or completely forego lunchbreaks) or take work home with us? How many of us haven’t got time for those precious little things in life like calling our loved-ones, taking that trip, going on that date, or engaging in meaningful daily stuff which feeds the soul?
How many of us survive on a bottle of wine and a microwaved shambles at the end of a working day?
'There aren’t many jobs which require you to be in a perpetually empathic frame of mind, the danger being that residing in the shoes of others can so easily mean you forget you have a pair of your own'
During my last week off I felt so utterly depleted and miserable that I didn’t have the energy to leave the house for the first few days. I simply didn’t have the inclination to engage in anything which might run the risk of knackering me out.
Like many of us drawn into to caring professions we really believe in our work - we wouldn’t do it otherwise. There aren’t many jobs which require you to be in a perpetually empathic frame of mind, the danger being that residing in the shoes of others can so easily mean you forget you have a pair of your own.
A 2012 HSE study showed that the financial cost of workplace sickness was an astonishing £6,427,200,000 with their 2017 report revealing how 526,000 workers needed to take time off annually to cope with stress, anxiety and depression. Unsurprisingly when broken down into industry sectors, human health, welfare and social care feature top of the stressed-out charts. In the words of Private Frazer, “We’re all doomed.”
It’s a sad fact that much of the Western world values productivity, perfection and busyness as desirable personality traits. We praise others for being ‘dedicated to the job’ which could be more accurately interpreted as, ‘largely ignoring your own needs and putting others first’. We are celebrated and approved of by our peers in this eternal exhausting martyrdom.
I think back to my mid-twenties. Pre-counselling me was a gigging musician, a drinker, thinker, all-round tinker. Wild, crazy and free I would’ve probably given Keith Richards a decent run for his money. Nowadays the highlight of my week is going to the post office.
I realise that my work has become my identity and that I have exterminated the non-sensible. Therapists don’t fall around muddy festival fields playing frisbee with a tambourine or pull an all-nighter to binge-watch Peaky Blinders. In fact sensible PROPER therapists don’t misbehave AT ALL.
When did I start to think that I needed to be so serious to be taken seriously?
I have become the milk monitor of the counselling world.
There’s a huge surge of guilt when I consider putting myself first - perhaps shortening my working schedule – losing the evenings and weekends – and spending the extra time doing, well, bugger all really. It doesn’t seem right when people need help. The anxiety of turning down clients because they can only accommodate me in their free time leaves me with a sense of letting others down – of being irresponsible, stubborn, lazy, disobedient, a shirker, a disappointment, SELFISH.
Of course in sessions I thoroughly advocate the importance of putting yourself first but it’s much easier to be a therapeutic pot-calling hypocrite.
Perhaps the self-care brigade are right after all. Working in this kind of profession comes at a massive emotional cost which must be offset with essential pressure-release time. Without it, it will become a life of being exhausted, boring, bitter and eventually utterly resentful of those you initially set out to help. So let’s stop praising others on their busyness and change this ridiculous culture. It is your sole responsibility to care for you – no one else is going to do it and only you can get permission from the boss (that’s you by the way). Self-care comes in all shapes and sizes and even washing the pots could be considered a form of practice I expect. Whatever works, works and perhaps that basic line of self-enquiry starts with: who was I before the job? Sensible schmensible. I step forward and graciously take my position as the Keith Richards of the counselling world.
Steph Jones is a BACP registered counsellor and psychotherapist supporting individuals and couples at her private practice in Stockport, Cheshire. She is a former Executive Board Member of Mind Manchester, and a radio presenter, musician and journalist. She writes for a number of wellbeing publications, is currently working on a book, and lives with partner Mike and Ziggy the cat.
Get in touch with Steph via Twitter