July 8th, 2015 by Dr. Nina Asher

“Determined to save
the only life you could save (your own)”
Mary Oliver, poet

“Between a stimulus and a response, there is a space, and in that space lives our power and our freedom.”
Victor Frankel, psychologist

Anytime you soften your heart, you are strengthening self-care.

Anytime you turn inward and begin to see and accept the disowned parts of yourself, you are strengthening self-care.

Anytime you touch compassion for the parts of yourself that you have not liked, you are strengthening self-care.

How can therapists best take care of themselves while helping others?
Our days, often long ones, are consumed with listening and responding to the stories, and pain of others. Many of us exercise, attempt to get sufficient sleep, eat well, take vacations, and engage in hobbies that don’t involve work. And still, we feel the suffering of others settling inside us. We know all too well how to “take care” of others but seem less equipped to take good care of ourselves.

I would like to broaden the definition of self-care to include a mind-set for living our lives. What if we thought about self-care as developing a compassionate stance towards all dimensions of our being, even the parts we don’t like?


1. Avoiding life’s difficulties does not equal happiness.
Set an intention to engage with all parts of yourself, even the ones you don’t like. Over time, this will lead to greater acceptance.

2. Notice the flow between pleasant and unpleasant experiences instead of clinging to the good and getting rid of the bad.

3. Perfection is an unattainable goal
Shift the focus from achieving perfection to recognizing and allowing what is to be what is. Pay attention to how you compare, judge, and try to fix. These harsh feelings derail us from inquiry, curiosity, and simply noticing “what is.” Longing for perfection does not promote self-care, but rather, increases unrealistic expectations, and disappointments.

4. Relaxing doesn’t always lead to calmer states.
The mind is very active, planning, organizing, reviewing what once was, and anticipating what is yet to come. Understanding how your mind works by watching it wander will lead to a more restful state. Bring awareness to the process of the mind wandering rather than engaging in a battle to try to stop its natural flow.

5. Therapy is a shared journey
Begin to discern the difference between “taking care” of the people with whom you work, and being present as a knowledgeable, empathic companion or witness. It is not our job to fix another person, but rather, we hold a space in which they can be heard and accepted no matter what emerges.

6. Not everything is an emergency
Notice the difference between reactive and responsive states. Reactive states occur when we work with people who are looking to us for solutions to the pain they feel. In our true wish for them to feel better, we jump in, leap to help them – we react with urgency. A responsive state allows for space for us to take a breath, pause, notice our own feelings, and then respond. Responding could mean saying or doing something, or saying or doing nothing at all. It is simply being present with the other’s experience

7. Turn towards a compassion stance with oneself – all parts of oneself, even those we don’t like
Compassion is the opposite of pity., and it levels hierarchy. Beneath every person’s unique story lies a thread of human commonality that speaks to the fact that we are all in this life together, struggling with very similar fears.

8. Taking care of oneself does not mean being completely independent
We all need one another. Looking inward and listening to oneself, allows us to meet life as it is, trusting that we will figure out what most needs our attention at a given time. This process helps settle the system, reach out to others when needed, and experience a deep connection with ourselves as well as those who help us.


End sessions on time
Take a few minutes of personal transition time for re-grouping and gathering oneself.

Pause at the end of each session
This may mean taking a couple of deep, cleansing breaths, or simply standing quietly for a minute. Find a ritual that delineates one patient from the next. This allows space for the patient you have just seen to settle inside you and release; this in turn creates room for someone else.

Pay attention
There are many ways we distract ourselves from endings and beginnings. Is it really necessary to check email, phone and text messages between every session? Discern what is simply habitual behavior and what can wait.

Notice what triggers you
You will likely feel this somewhere in your body. Although you may not know what is bothering you, if you pause and open to investigation, you are engaging in self-care. Becoming curious about what the body is telling you, works against habitual judgment of feelings.

Build in moments that allow your mind to wander, and “not know.”
Ask yourself open-ended questions and notice your mind rushing to find a definitive answer. Let go of the “answer finding” and ask the question again. See if you can relax into not-knowing the answer through thinking. The mind needs time to float in open space.

Trust emergence