TO THINE OWN SELF BE KIND: Taking Time to Practice Self-Care

I came awake suddenly on New Year’s morning, instantly noticing the time. It was 12:20 a.m., and, for the first time in many years, I had missed the ball dropping at midnight in Times Square. I was disappointed in myself – especially since recently I had been sleeping more than usual. My friends had been reminding me about my hectic schedule over the last semester, and the fact that my body might be telling me that I needed to slow down. I knew they were right, but there was so much to do, and I was determined to get it done. But, as I lay there that morning, I realized how tired I truly was, and how little time I had allocated to self-care.

Practicing self-care is vital. For counselors who are regularly inundated with their clients’ sufferings and painful experiences, it is even more important. An effective self-care regimen lets counselors replenish their sense of well-being, allowing them to be more effective with clients. Counselor self-care provides a win-win situation for both clinicians and the clients they serve. There are many suggestions for self-care techniques, but the best one is that which gives you pleasure, and a sense of rejuvenation. In “The Resilient Clinician,” Dr. Robert J. Wicks writes about solitude, silence, and mindfulness, as means of replenishing the self. These are effective self-care techniques. Can you think of others you can incorporate in your lives?

For some clinicians, the practice of self-care is scheduled into their day. It might be a bubble bath before bed or a bike ride before dinner. Whatever you choose, make it a priority and not just something you do if time permits. You can even add to your regimen on occasion by doing something spontaneous in between client sessions, e.g. deep breathing, stretching, or simple Qigong exercises or breathing techniques. Self-care also includes the basic health activities of regular medical and dental visits, healthy eating, and daily exercise. Some counselors find it helpful to belong to a social support group, or may retain a therapist who they see on a regular basis. There is no limit to activities, as long as they are geared to caring for your mind, body and soul.

Those of us who do not practice self-care can become overwhelmed. We might find ourselves becoming reactive or overly emotional. This is disadvantageous to our clients, as well as to ourselves. As we begin a new year, let us resolve to take care of ourselves. It might be getting more productive sleep, or losing weight, or finding time for solitude, all of which I plan to do. What about you? What will you do? Whatever you decide, make it something enjoyable, sustainable, and beneficial, and begin it right away. Your body will thank you, your mind and soul will thank you, and you will be more focused and motivated in your work with clients.



Tiffany (Coons) O’Hara – An M.S. Graduate Success Story

JoAnn: What led you to Loyola’s Department of Pastoral Counseling and Spiritual Care?

Tiffany: I got my undergraduate degree from Mt. Saint Mary’s and knew I wanted to stay in Maryland.  While looking for graduate programs in Clinical Psychology, I saw Pastoral Counseling, but I had no idea what it was. I researched it, and the more I learned about it, the more I realized that it was the perfect fit for me with its blend of psychology and spirituality. I was not comfortable pushing aside my faith in my career path. I discerned Loyola was a good fit for me.

JoAnn: How was it at Loyola?

Tiffany: I loved Loyola from day one!  Starting class with a prayer, meeting people from different faith backgrounds, experiencing everyone’s passion to help other people, and the way they integrate spirituality into their work was so inspiring for me from my first class to my last and now.

JoAnn: What were your most memorable experiences?

Tiffany: Dr. Sharon Cheston’s and Dr. Frank Richardson’s classes stood out for me. Family Counseling and Pastoral Integration were my favorite classes. The clinical portions of my studies were meaningful for me. Getting hands-on experience with different supervisors was extremely helpful.  Two years of internship gave me the confidence to go out into the workforce and know that I was ready.

JoAnn: Where did you do your internships?

Tiffany: My first one was at St. Francis Academy, a Catholic High School in Baltimore, and the second year I was at Lighthouse Youth and Family Services. I had a practicum supervisor, an on-site supervisor, and a small group supervisor in my first internship and two supervisors in my second.  I learned so much from all of them and would advise students to make the most of the supervision that they receive.

JoAnn: I heard you got married, bought a new house, went on your first ever cruise for a honeymoon, got a new dog, wrote the Professional Seminar paper, and got a new job!  How did you juggle it all?

Tiffany: Through the grace of God!  And, with very supportive family/friends and self-care. I did a lot of knitting and crocheting blankets/scarves. I prayed and journaled. I had a “keep my eyes on the prize” mentality.  Everything that happened, while stressful, was a positive thing, so that helped.  Knowing that I was called to be a counselor helped me to get through the program.

JoAnn: How was the job hunting process?

Tiffany: I started job hunting my second to last semester before I graduated. Perhaps I was a bit pre-emptive, but I am glad I did. The process was frustrating and discouraging! I put out so many resumes and only got only two bites. I was in a catch-22 situation. I had not yet graduated or gotten my license. I interviewed with Contemporary Family Services. I told them I wanted to be a school-based counselor and they were looking for a counselor for their charter schools in Baltimore. They offered me the job on the spot! I will start as soon as my LGPC (Licensed Graduate Professional Counselor) certification is completed.

JoAnn: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Tiffany: I am thankful, grateful, and blessed to have gone through the program, graduated, and to be where I am now.  I enjoyed my years at Loyola in the PC
Program
and I miss it much more than I thought I would.

Top 5 Lessons I Learned in the M.A. Program

 The top 5 lessons I learned in the MA in Spiritual and Pastoral Care Program in no particular order are:

1. Be careful sharing your theology with others – What you believe about God may not be what another person believes, and even if you are well meaning you may hurt someone else by imposing your views.  In Theological Anthropology, Dr. Gerry Fialkowski told us many stories.  One that stands out for me was the story of what one well-meaning, but misguided person said to a child grieving for her mother.  It was not a pastoral response.  She said, “God needed your mommy in heaven, which is why she died.”  That child needs her mother.  Only a cruel God would deprive a child of her mother.  Is that the God I believe in? 

2. God is mystery – God continues to reveal Godself to us, God is continuously creating, and God’s work is never finished.  All we have are metaphors to describe God.  Our human minds do not have the capacity to fully understand God.  If you think you understand God, drop that concept you think you know because you have got it all wrong.  St. Augustine said, “God is not what you imagine or what you think you understand.  If you understand, you have failed…”

I now live by that concept.  Surprise and discovery are what I find here at Loyola on this journey toward union with God. I am constantly reminding myself to stay open to new possibilities, new understandings, new invitations, and new calls from God.

3. Self-Care is Sacred.  – It is not selfish to practice self-care — it is self-preservation for someone in a helping profession.  We are so highly prone to burn out, and when this occurs we can cause harm to those for which we care.  “Physician heal thyself.” (Luke 4:23).  I have studied the wounded healers (like Henri Nouwen) who bind up their own wounds, and in so doing learn empathy/compassion.  They sooth others’ wounds because they first tended to their own.

4. I AM capable of being a spiritual director  – In my tradition of Roman Catholicism, priests and religious do most of the spiritual guidance.  It is only in the last generation that lay men and women have taken on a greater role in Ministry within the Church.  There are still many traditional and conservative individuals who would rather go to a priest or nun with a spiritual matter viewing him or her as “more qualified.”  I had carried this with me and it made me doubt my ability to be a spiritual director.  But then, I took Spiritual Direction with Fr. Brian McDermott, SJ.  He showed me that I do have what it takes, that I can be a spiritual director, and that anyone who has a true calling regardless of whether or not they have been ordained can companion someone in their spiritual journey.

5. There are distinct differences between spiritual direction, pastoral care, pastoral counseling, and psychotherapy – As I sit with someone in a spiritual direction session, often relationship issues enter into our space and that is okay.  The Spirit is there between us continuing God’s work of creating by mending fences, changing hearts, calling to conversion, reconciling, nurturing, tending, and challenging.   My directees and pastoral care receivers constantly teach me what they need from me. If I can assist them with that need then I will; however, if I cannot then it is time for me to refer them to another professional.

A plethora of personal growth and formation takes place here at Loyola.  I could communicate so many more lessons I have learned.  This is just a sample of life at Loyola as an MA student in the Pastoral Counseling Department.

Disordered Affection: Finding God in all the wrong places?

The phrase “disordered affections” captured my attention while I was reading James Martin’s The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything. St. Ignatius of Loyola first described disordered affections in his Spiritual Exercises as whatever keeps us from being free. It is an “affection” because we find it appealing. We are drawn to it. It satisfies a hunger – a need within us, and, after a while, it becomes an “attachment.” We think we cannot live without it. Thus, it is “disordered” because it is not “life giving.”

As I chased down its meaning, I uncovered how I use disordered affections in my life to distract myself from my path and growing closer to God. In pastoral counseling, it is easy to identify the disordered affections and attachments that are obviously not “life giving” and cause harm: substance abuse, alcoholism, hoarding, obsessive-compulsive disorder. But what about those disordered affections that are seemingly harmless like watching television, the Internet, reading, exercise, work, and, um, chocolate?

So, I did a little research and found a definition on This Ignatian Life :

 “Disordered attachments are those things (objects, experiences, activities, even other people) who become the focus of our desires and, consequently our time on this earth, rather than seeking the will and companionship of God.”

Hmmm. This might mean that my job qualifies as a disordered affection . . . but we’ll deal with that later. Here are some questions This Ignatian Life recommends we ask to identify disordered affections:

  • Does the object of your affection distract you from your focus to be closer to God? (Only after lunch and only when it involves chocolate.)
  • Is more of your time spent attending to these affections rather than the work you need to be doing? (No, I can eat chocolate and answer e-mail at the same time.)
  • Do you have a fear of feeling empty if you do not attend to your affections? (Darn it . . . yes! Only chocolate will fill that emptiness!)
  • Is your time spent trying to accumulate more time with or material objects surrounding your affections? (Hmm. I purchased the party-size bag of M&M’s® and carry it with me. At first, I thought I would just carry a serving size but what if it was not enough and I want more? It doesn’t make sense to BUY more when I already have $11.99 worth at home.)

Interestingly, St. Ignatius offers a way to overcome disordered attachments that might sound a little familiar to pastoral counselors:

  • Begin by naming the disorder. (Chocoholism.)
  • Admit that the disorder impacts your life and relationships. (Sigh . . . see the 3 out of 4 “yes” answers above.)
  • Remember your desire to move closer to God and your commitment to serve others. (St. Ignatius also reminded me that my desire is also God’s desire to be closer to me, and I never share my M&M’s® with anyone.)
  • Seek the grace to be strong and committed to your path. Rather than completely deny the object of your attachment, seek only to hold it openly, in ways that free your soul from fear. (I was inspired to purchase an M&M® dispenser and place it on the desk in my office. Now, people trickle in for a handful of candy and stay and chat for a minute or two.)

Ignatian spirituality calls for us to find God in all things. Even within a disordered affection, if I seek to find God and His grace, I will find my freedom and perhaps a few other souls along the way.

Hearing my Heart for the First Time: When faith is challenged

            Friday’s Human Development class began with the question, “On what is my heart set?”  My initial answer is Christ although my actions don’t always point to that.  Where does my faith truly lie?  Is it in the Catholic Church where I grew up?  Is it possible God is leading me to a different faith tradition?  He has shown me parts of Himself in each religion I’ve encountered.  This question had posed itself before and each time I have pushed it aside, feeling guilty for even considering it.  Friday night I was surrounded by people who had faced that question, answered it, and ultimately found peace.  Their acceptance, openness, and honesty made all the difference.  I felt no guilt in considering the question and shortly I had the answer.  My heart is set on Christ, my HusbandMy marriage to Him is the most important thing in my life.  Our union is that for which I live and will die.  Since the Catholic Church is the only institution that honors our marriage, I will stay.  My anger at current leadership remains.  So now what?

            We discussed Fowler’s stages of faith.  During stage IV, a person’s faith is challenged.  Something happens that contradicts what she believes to be true and she is then forced to question:  Do I continue to follow blindly?  Do I leave behind that which I once knew to be true in order to follow new truth?  Do I reconcile the two – and if yes, how?  Certain events have happened that are challenging my faith.  I question the character of God – not doubting Him, but to better understand Him – and I am seeking advice from every wise man, not despising any useful counsel (Tobit 4:18).  With the religious diversity at Loyola, wise men and women are abundant.

We learn faith from those around us.  I’m sure some would argue the opposite because many leave the faith tradition they grew up in, either finding a different one or abandoning organized religion altogether.  But the bottom line is this:  faith is what drives you, it is that on which you have set your heart. I live by faith.  I question my faith but that is necessary – if I don’t ask, I won’t receive.  I am discovering that my Husband, though Jewish when He walked the earth, is not necessarily Jewish.  Or Catholic.  Or Muslim.  Or Hindu.  Or Buddhist.  But He is certainly present in all these traditions.  We are a people who, as Dr. McGinnis says, have written on our hearts to seek God.  I am reminded of a phrase in Slumdog Millionaire, spoken by Jamal to the girl he loves, Latika.  Tragic events transpire in their lives yet he persists in looking for her.  She asks why and he responds, “We are meant to be together.  It is written.”  It was written on his heart.  It was his faith in a love so profound that he could not imagine a life without her in it.  Whatever transpired to that point was unimportant.  As Victor Frankl said, “A person who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.”

It is my love for my Husband – and my desire for our union – that drives my life trajectory.  It is my anchor through the storm, keeping me grounded in my faith in the Eucharist even as my faith in those consecrating it is deeply shaken.  I will continue to search for those ways in which I can reconcile my faith to my religion.  Why?  Because it is written.

Self-care through maintaining balance

Today, my day went something like this:

‘Alarm clock, rush, rush, traffic jam, work, work, work, and more work, traffic jam, work, work, work, drive, drive, home, more work to do.’ Sound familiar? The day was so busy that I just wanted to shout, “Stop! Just stop and take a break!”

I know, I know. That is just how your day went too, right? Take a minute with me, close your eyes and take a deep breath. Any better yet?

Life can be so chaotic, so busy, and so full of activity that we often forget how important it is to take care of ourselves. We get so caught up with all of the things that we have to do that we don’t even notice how unbalanced our lives have become. Our society is so fast paced that it is hard for many people to catch their breaths – me included. It is at this time that I stop to reflect on some wise words I have recently read:

“Care must be taken not to be driven in one’s career to the extent that everything else loses value and accordingly does not receive the attention it should.” – Dr. Robert Wicks, in The Resilient Clinician.

I received Dr. Wicks’ book as a gift from the Loyola University Pastoral Counseling Department during a free ‘self-care’ workshop. One of my fellow blog writers has put together an excellent post describing the events of the day. Many thanks JoAnn! To read about our day of self-care, click here.

The Resilient Clinician offers helping professionals practical advice for avoiding burnout through working to maintain balance. Although the text is designed for those working in the mental health profession, the words of wisdom contained in the book are useful for anyone who (like me) is feeling a bit overwhelmed by the pressures life has to offer. Dr. Wicks goes in depth into many different topics from recognizing signs of burn out to developing strategies for self-care. I highly recommend reading the text whether you are a clinician or are simply feeling the physical and psychological effects of stress.

In Appendix E, Dr. Wicks challenges the reader to check balance in the following areas:

  1. Stimulation and quiet
  2. Reflection and action
  3. Work and leisure
  4. Self-care and care of others
  5. Self-improvement and patience
  6. Future aspirations and present positive realities
  7. Involvement and detachment

Today, I am going to just pick one off the list. I’ll start with number 1 simply because I am too tired to be all that original at the moment. I have had plenty of stimulation today. When I leave all of you, I am going to take 15 minutes of silence and just listen to the quiet.

Why don’t you join me? Your brain will thank you for it.