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The Psychology of Self-Care

I talk about self-care a lot. With my clients, with my friends and family, even in my blog before (see here and here). Just a quick Google of “self-care” brings up a plethora of information. A few weeks ago, if you follow me on Instagram (@real_life_psych), I spent a whole weekend practicing self care. It was actually a challenge at times, trying to keep the focus on myself (it’s not always my nature), but it was a great practice. We don’t always have the time (or the energy).

Today, let’s start at the very beginning…

What is Self-Care?

Self-care is anything you do to recharge yourself so you are able to be the best self you can be. The water-bucket metaphor is a common one: We fill others’ buckets all day; self-care is what we do to fill our own bucket back up. This can mean different things for different people depending on resources and life circumstances.

For example, in times of distress, self-care might mean just taking a few deep breaths (mindfulness and grounding). Whereas, when we have some down-time, self-care might mean spending time with friends (social support) or taking a long bath with a good book (leisure activity).

Other proven strategies for self-care include:

  • Physical exercise

  • Healthy eating

  • Healthy sleep practices (yes, the basics are just as important!)

  • Mindfulness

  • Spirituality practices

  • Journaling

  • Contributing to a bigger community (ie: volunteer work, church, etc)

  • Continued education (increases knowledge and lessens imposter syndrome - what’s that? See here.)

Why is Self-Care Important?

As therapists, counselors, health-care workers, teachers, other professions, we are susceptible to “compassion fatigue”. We can even fall into our clients trauma and be faced with vicarious traumatization. These can lead to burnout in our field, which we know is more common than many other occupations. Burnout can appear as poor sleep, physical aches and pains, headaches, irritability, depression, anxiety, or passiveness. If we miss these symptoms without self-care, it can lead to Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder which in turn can lead to more intense care outside ourselves. It is critical we practice self-care regularly, so we can avoid having to step away from a job we are often so passionate about.

It’s important to note as well, though these terms and experiences are often related to those in the ‘caring professions’, it can also happen to those caring for family or friends outside of a professional capacity. Self-care is also critical to those experiencing mental health struggles. And, really, anyone who is just feeling overwhelmed by everyday life stressors!

What are the Benefits of Self-Care?

One of the most significant benefits to self-care is a reduced rate of burnout. Also, regular self-care practice can have the following perks:

  • increased self-awareness

  • increased effectiveness in therapy (via increase in client-therapist rapport and acceptance)

  • Better work-life balance

  • Higher self-esteem and increased confidence

  • Increased use of assertiveness

  • Expanded mindfulness and understanding of one’s own values

  • Increased productivity

Real Life Takeaway

In therapy, I often have my clients identify barriers to practicing self-care. We need to do same, and be realistic in acknowledging that there are barriers to our own self-care. Like I mentioned before, I often don’t feel I have the time or energy for self-care. Our society tends to glorify ‘business’ and involvement. We should be glorifying those who take care of themselves and end up being more productive when they are involved in something they care about. Other barriers can include:

  • Increased need and demand for mental health care; feeling as though we need to rearrange our schedules for clients, which in some cases can be beneficial, but it is imperative we keep this in check

  • Vulnerability that comes with the job and exhaustion. Our career choice often comes high expectations for average or low pay (all that paperwork - am I right?!). The existential rewards can of course overwrite this, but again, we must keep a balance for ourselves

  • Comparing our own lives to those of our clients (specifically those who work with couples or abuse)

  • Comparing ourselves to others (hello, social media)

  • Conflicting priorities (ie: work, family, friends, home, etc)

  • Lack of community resources, for both ourselves, and our clients (ie: feeling total responsibility for clients, unable to refer to appropriate care, etc)

  • Lack of awareness of the benefits of self-care. Read the other bulleted list above in case you already forgot!

If you take anything away from this blog today, take 5 minutes, close your eyes, put your feet on the floor, and breathe.


Alani, T., & Stroink, M. (2015). Self-care strategies and barriers among female service providers working with female survivors of intimate partner violence. Canadian Journal Of Counselling And Psychotherapy, 49(4), 360-378.

de Vos, J. A., Netten, C., & Noordenbos, G. (2016). Recovered eating disorder therapists using their experiential knowledge in therapy: A qualitative examination of the therapists’ and the patients’ view. Eating Disorders: The Journal Of Treatment & Prevention, 24(3), 207-223. doi:10.1080/10640266.2015.109086

Hill, K., Wittkowski, A., Hodgkinson, E., Bell, R., & Hare, D. J. (2016). Using the repertory grid technique to examine trainee clinical psychologists' construal of their personal and professional development. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy, 23(5), 425-437. doi:10.1002/cpp.1961

Mathieu, Françoise. The Compassion Fatigue Workbook: Creative Tools for Transforming Compassion Fatigue and Vicarious Traumatization

Purchase on Amazon here:

Wise, E. H., Hersh, M. A., & Gibson, C. M. (2012). Ethics, self-care and well-being for psychologists: Reenvisioning the stress-distress continuum. Professional Psychology: Research And Practice, 43(5), 487-494. doi:10.1037/a0029446

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