By Katy Liefeld
As a counselor-in-training, I receive a lot of suggestions and predictions from faculty and family about what my life as a therapist is going to look like: “How will you handle hearing everyone’s problems?” “I could never have that much patience!” and, “Make sure to find ways to recharge!” Self-care is a huge topic of conversation and even something I was required to participate in during a class. Google self-care or search it on TikTok, and you’ll likely first come across products to purchase: skincare, a new water bottle, a sleep mask, etc. You’ll likely also find suggested self-care “routines” that often require money, time, planning, and an aesthetically pleasing bedroom with color-coordinated PJs. For many of us, these activities are not only unattainable, but not actually restful.
The American monk and theologian Thomas Merton once wrote:
To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.
What is the work of therapy if not a pursuit of peace? What happens when we don’t give ourselves room to listen to our inner wisdom and work for peace? Burn-out, over-accommodating, over-working, and a general incongruence with our internal world.
How do we make room for rest that brings us back to balance?
Panthea Saidipour, LCSW, defined rest as “shifting from what’s external to what’s internal and making time and space for our inner selves, our minds, and our creativity.” The quickest road to this inner world is removing distractions and allowing your mind to wander in silence. Some version of meditation or silence practices are included in almost all major religions, and there are of course lauded mental health benefits to this practice. However, silence is so hard to come by. I don’t know about you, but I always need a sound companion with me throughout my day. Whether it’s a playlist, podcast, a comfort show, or the sound of my own voice, I love consuming content to get me through my day. And while this sometimes helps my productivity, it doesn’t always help me get to know myself, my inner world, or prepare me for the work of therapy.
If you’re new to or nervous about practicing silence, try these easy steps to get started:
- Find a comfy place away from screens: a favorite chair, couch, a blanket in the grass. (Anywhere but your bed so your silence practice doesn’t become a snooze practice).
- Begin by breathing deep in a 4-square method: Breath in for 4 counts, Hold for 4, Exhale for 4, Hold for 4, and repeat. Notice how the breath feels entering and exiting your body. Notice where your mind is wandering.
- From here we have some choices: now that your body is relaxed, the real work begins. Do you find that emotions are starting to come up? Do you notice you have an unmet physical need like hunger, thirst or a need for sleep? Is your mind racing through the rest of your to-do’s for the day? Sometimes it’s helpful to think of a word, image or phrase that helps you reset when your mind wanders. Make a note of whatever sensations are coming up, feel them, let them pass, then come back to your centering word or phrase.
After a few minutes, take a few more deep breaths and open your eyes if they were closed. If you think of it, jot down any thoughts or observations you had, then carry on with your day. It doesn’t have to be long, and it doesn’t need to feel meaningful in the moment. Over time, the practice helps us combat the busyness and productivity-drivenness of our lives, teaches us that we are worth taking care of, listening to, and helps our brains rest from constant information input.
Play & Nostalgia
Another way to shift from external to internal focus, and prepare for that journey of the inner work that is therapy, is to prioritize play. What hobbies did you enjoy as a child? Did you make up dances? Jump rope? Write stories? Did you always want to paint but your parents didn’t like the mess? Did you always want to wear colorful makeup but you didn’t have access? Did you always want to play a sport but never made the team? The fun thing about being an adult is that we often have resources and freedom we didn’t have as children, and we can speak back to our former selves by having the experiences we always wanted. Our childhood activities often get us out of our task- and productivity-oriented minds and move us toward an embodied, almost meditative practice of fun for the sake of fun. They can connect us to who we used to be, highlight how we’ve changed, and point us to truths about who we are in a more meaningful way than a job title or relationship status could.
Try something old or new and pay attention to how it feels. Does it feel like a waste of time? Does it feel silly? Familiar? Uncomfortable? Note the sensations and don’t give up on yourself. Relay the feelings to your therapist or a trusted friend and reflect on what it would mean to give yourself experiences that are joyful for the sake of joy.
We all deserve and require true rest. You don’t need to look a certain way, buy a certain product, or prioritize other things before you get it.
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