Creative Play Therapy and Self-Care
We could begin this chapter with dire warnings about the dangers of not taking time for self-care. We could cite the literature on vicarious trauma, burnout and compassion fatigue. We could caution about the threat of a shortened career in this field after all your years and expense of schooling and gaining experience. However, in our experience, students and practitioners do not need to be convinced of the importance of self-care. They need to be convinced to actually do it.
While preparing to leave town on sabbatical to write this book, I (Dr. Denis’) spent countless hours sprucing up our house to prepare it as a short-term rental. We bought a new refrigerator to replace the leaky one we put up with for six years because it still worked. We bought new, beautiful bedding and furniture. We hired someone to deep clean it until it sparkled and others to fix our list of repairs. We did all this for strangers that we would never even meet, knowing that we would not have done it for ourselves.
Challenges of Self-Care
That is how helpers often approach self-care. Like my list of repairs, we usually know what needs to be done, but unless it becomes urgent, it gets put off until later. We limp along catching small warnings like my leaking refrigerator, but since we can still handle our work load and since the perceived cost of time to address the problem seems high, we make do. We continue to meet others’ expectations (or what we think their expectations are), while not doing the things that would make life better for ourselves and our families.
One of the things I am most looking forward to enjoying when I get home is an Airbnb-worthy home. Our home is beautiful now, and the person managing it while we are gone has added wonderful hospitable touches to ensure that guests have a comfortable, relaxing stay. I like comfortable and relaxing, too, so why did we not do this sooner? We put it off because of cost, effort and priority.
Making the repairs on our home cost thousands of dollars, and most of the time, it is challenging to spend large chunks of money. With self-care, one of the biggest costs is time. With so many things competing for time, it may feel like you are giving up the last scraps of free time to squeeze in a healthy activity which just seems like another task on the list. Instead, we opt for things that numb or avoid emotion. Then, we keep going without addressing what needs to be repaired.
Helping work is hard work. We take in horrific stories and pour ourselves into difficult journeys with clients through the darkest places of human nature. Greenwald (1967) wrote about his experience using play with adults:
I was using play not only for my patients’ direct benefit but also to make it possible for me to deal with their problems without undue suffering. It is not helpful to the sufferer to permit his difficulties to engulf the therapist. One of the reasons many patients cannot be helped is that they arouse such intense emotions in the therapist that he cannot cope with them.
This kind of work is full-time, but it often bleeds into our personal time, too, because we care about our clients. We falsely equate worry with caring. We think about them frequently, but unlike other professions, we cannot talk about our work with friends and family. We hold secrets, shared by our clients, without confidential outlets to process our reactions. Then, we have our own stuff, too. Finding appropriate ways to externalize our responses to client stories, while dealing with our own issues, may feel like it requires an insurmountable amount of effort when we are tired at the end of the day or the end of the work week. Coupled with the cost of time (and maybe money), many use ineffective coping strategies that help in the short term, but do not nourish and replenish for the future. Although promoting self-care is part of most counselor training programs these days, few practitioners have flexible, well-developed and adaptive plans for self-care that they can consistently implement (Thomas & Morris, 2017).