A therapist friend of mine once shared this exchange with me. She’d admitted that on writing a flippant Facebook comment she’d agonised over a couple of sleepless nights that somehow, she had caused some terrible offence when the recipient did not respond. ‘Time to go back into therapy’ her friend had said to her, half-jokingly.
Though she could laugh about it, it did give us both pause to reflect upon the expectations that are placed on us as counsellors, not least by ourselves. We all have anxious wobbles, moments where we experience a fleeting ‘paranoid’, or anxiety laden thought or a feeling that proverbially stops us in our tracks. These experiences are normal for everyone, even for counsellors and yet it seems there is a collective assumption that this kind of inner discomfort should not exist and if it does then something is ‘wrong’ and must be addressed. My friend tucked this sensible observation away in her head, mindful of its implications in her work with clients who hope for that final ‘fix’ that will permanently free them from any further wobbles and change their lives forever.
Of course, if anxious thoughts are interfering considerably with living our lives, then it really is time to see a therapist but, more often than not, these wobbles are simply part of the normal human experience that we are erroneously rejecting as signs of personal failure. It seems to me that as counsellors we often feel this judgement even more intensely, falling into the trap of imagining that with all of our training and experience we ought to uphold an ideal of perfect mental health.
As we all know, there are clear costs to this denial of the full breadth of our human experience, whether we are therapists or not. What we resist, persists.
In my experience as a psychotherapist who has often had to battle against the ‘perfect therapist persona’, self-neglect is one of the highest prices we pay when we are overly attached to an ideal of perfection. Growing from a sense of shame that, as counsellors, we should know better, we tend to hide our own pain, from ourselves and others. This in turn can cause us to become overly critical of ourselves, expecting too much, and constantly pushing to do better, as our capacity to properly take care of ourselves becomes more and more impaired.
How often do we extol self-care as fundamental to good mental health whilst simultaneously not practicing it ourselves?
It is likely that most of us who have been drawn to work as counsellors score pretty highly on the perfectionism scale. We are helpers who want to make the world a better place. How then can we start cutting ourselves more slack and making peace with both our imperfections and the messiness of our own lives?
As with all parts of the therapeutic or self-growth journey: Knowledge is power.
If acknowledged and given a bit of airing out, these tendencies can be held more lightly and prevented from spiralling out of control. Otherwise, hiding out in the shadows of our mind, they can proliferate and overwhelm us, interfering with our own personal growth and our counselling work.
Here are some of the psychological traps to look out for if self-care has dropped down to the bottom of your list.
The ‘All or Nothing’ mindset
This can interfere with how we look after ourselves in subtle ways. For example, we all know that exercise is good for our physical and mental wellbeing, yet many of us find maintaining a regular exercise routine difficult because of an ‘all or nothing’ belief system. If you’ve ever given up on your weekly exercise plan because you missed Monday’s class, then you have an ‘all or nothing’ mindset. We find ourselves thinking ‘This week is a bust, so I’ll wait until next week to do it ‘right’.
It makes so much sense in the moment and yet when we pull out of the thought process, the self-sabotage becomes clear. The mantra (borrowed from Alcoholics Anonymous), ‘One day at a time’ can help to overcome this tendency. If you can simply focus on only the present day and consider what you can realistically get done - without thinking about the rest of the week - then you can reset yourself every day and let go of the illusion that there has to be a straight line to ‘perfectly’ achieve your goal. In this way, things are achieved gently and, hopefully, that can be seen as ‘good enough’.
Ask yourself from time to time how you might be sabotaging your own self-care with an all or nothing mindset, or a black and white way of thinking. You may be surprised how easily we can slip into this tendency, especially when we are feeling overwhelmed, tired and stressed.
The old adage ‘comparison is the thief of joy’ could not be more accurate. When we compare ourselves to others or to some media generated ideal, shame is almost always activated and self-defeat quickly follows. In the age of social media comparing ourselves to others is both difficult to avoid and a quick route to unnecessary but inevitable suffering - unnecessary because it requires us to buy into the mythology that life is a competition that others are doing better in, and inevitable, because in comparing ourselves to an airbrushed, filtered and carefully curated snapshot, we can only ever view the poorly lit, high definition, full versions of our own selves as falling short.
Catching ourselves when we are slipping down the negative comparison rabbit hole is one of the best self-care practices we can master. Try to stay tuned into your inner dialogue and how it affects your emotions and consider some micro-habit changes (such as charging your phone downstairs at night to avoid late night scrolling) to keep the negative comparisons at bay.
Comparing ourselves with other mental health practitioners is equally unproductive. It is the equivalent to comparing apples and oranges, really, with both being different but of equal value. Who you are, your style, your personality, is of course unique and your therapeutic practice is an extension of that. So, you may not have the exact same skills and training as another counsellor, this only underscores your uniqueness and may well make you a better fit for certain clients than for others. There is no one size fits all therapy and there is a place for all of us. What is important, if we are to properly practice self-care, is accepting that we are not always best placed to work with every client who comes our way.
Resisting Our Limitations
For first time practicing therapists especially, it is easy to overestimate our capacities. We may, in our professional zeal, take on too many clients. Or we may feel that we should be able to work with any client who contacts us. Working too hard and challenging ourselves too much can quickly lead to burn out and rob us of that much needed, uncluttered head space that allows us to be fully present with our clients.
Early in my career I had a client, who was very stressed and burnt out, tell me that he couldn’t reduce his work hours, nor take on a less stressful role because it would mean less money. He had accepted that he would, in effect, risk his health for the security and comfort of his current salary. In light of this very firm decision, I had to accept the limitations on my own capacity to help without seeing it as a failure.
It is easy to forget that counselling takes two. It is a collaboration between us and our client that only succeeds if there is a good working alliance, and sometimes, because we are only human, this cannot be forged no matter how good our intentions or how hard we may try.
In other instances, we may feel out of our depth with the issues that a client is bringing, struggle to feel a rapport with them in the consultation or simply not have the energy for a new therapeutic relationship at that time. All of these are ample justification to say no to a new referral and to signpost them on to someone who may be better able to help. Acting on these instincts however can be difficult and so I’d recommend putting protective procedures in place to help you to hold your boundaries e.g. offering a free 30 minute call before meeting the client to allow you to get a sense of the fit before money is exchanged and / or making the client aware from the outset that the consultation is an opportunity for both of you to determine if you are a good fit for each other.
The Benefits of Embracing Imperfection
In today’s aspirational society it is easy to get caught up in notions of perfect lives and perfect mental health. Everywhere around us there are messages to be our ‘best selves’ or to live our ‘best lives’ and many clients come to us with the expectation that therapy will help them to achieve this, miraculously ironing out all of their ‘flaws’ and solving all of their problems. It can be really difficult not to collude with this, if we are entangled in the same mythology and expect ourselves to have it all figured out. The persona of the perfect therapist is a seductive one and yet it is clear that it benefits nobody.
If we really are to live our lives in the best way possible, embracing our mistakes and imperfections through self-compassion is fundamental. This kind of radical acceptance of our own humanness, with all its flaws and foibles, allows us to more readily practice looking after ourselves and in turn gives our clients permission to do the same.
When we hide our mistakes, or rigidly cling to the ‘all-knowing, in control’ counsellor persona, we are reinforcing this unhealthy and unrealistic idea of perfection. Perhaps counterintuitively, it can actually be refreshing for our clients to see that we are a human, capable of mistakes and feeling all of the more challenging feelings. In modelling that it is OK to not be ‘perfect’, we tacitly invite them to lay down the burden of pretence and all of the associated self-criticism and insecurity.
I remember once chiding my own training analyst for coming to our session whilst clearly unwell. At first defensive, he then thanked me and admitted his reluctance to address his own feelings of fragility. Now, after practicing for many years, I see this small event as a significant reminder of how we as practitioners need to look after ourselves, and more importantly, as a gift that my therapist could let himself be human and imperfect with me in the consulting room.
If I do find myself slipping into the perfect therapist persona, it helps me to allow myself to be curious about it.
Does it occur with a particular client or clients? Is it somehow compensatory for feeling a lack of control in some other area of my life?
Sometimes, it is invoked by clients who either demand or desire that I be perfect for them. Other times, I find it appears when I am feeling not as steady or supported as usual.
By observing it and listening to it, we can see what it is communicating to us and better ensure that it does not become a stumbling block in either our work or in our own relationship to ourselves.