Supporting Therapist Self-Care in Supervision
What are the keys to maintaining self-care while working as a therapist? How can supervision practice centre a commitment to practitioner wellbeing? Sarah Worley-James is a supervisor, trainer and manager of a university counselling service. She marks Self-Care Week 2023 with a look at three key elements that can support supervisees to consider their own needs as well as their clients’ – context, variety, and valuing ourselves.
Self-care is an essential, vital, aspect of being a counsellor that is often put to one side, or even forgotten entirely in the focus on our clients and their wellbeing. A presiding motivation for training to be a counsellor is the desire to help others in distress. But of course this entails the need for us to be emotionally resilient and robust ourselves. With an increasing demand for counselling and pressures on services to meet this with finite resources, our own wellbeing can too easily slip to the bottom of the pile, despite one of the six principles of the BACP Ethical Framework (Self-Respect) including ‘care for self’.
Within my supervisory relationships, I start every session with a focus on my supervisee’s wellbeing. We consider the personal impact, as well as the potential professional effect on their ability to maintain ethical and effective counselling with their clients. Whilst this is essential, I am mindful of the value of clear contracting including clarity of supervisory expectations for both supervisor and counsellor to be able to recognise when the boundary between offering a supportive space, and knowing when the counsellor may benefit from their own counselling, has been reached.
Stress affects us all differently and a word I find incredibly helpful is ‘context’. We can too easily put ourselves under pressure, criticising ourselves for not doing enough, or not being as effective as usual, whilst overlooking what we are experiencing in life on this day; the demands, challenges, our energy level and current health.
Further elements of context include the type of client work that we are undertaking, the complexity or content of what we are hearing, and the way in which we engage and connect to our clients. When working online, this connection and the energy required can be more intense than in person. The client’s face is closer to us, and we will be more focused as we strive to connect and understand them with limited, or no, visual cues. Conversely, the intensity of emotion being expressed when sitting in the same space as the client can be visceral.
In supervision, I also reflect with supervisees on what uses, and replenishes, our energy when counselling. For example, if a counsellor has ADHD, they may find the therapeutic work energising, while the administrative parts take more focus, energy and time. This needs recognising within supervision and line management, to ensure they receive appropriate support.
I find the ProQOL compassion satisfaction and fatigue questionnaire an invaluable aid when considering my wellbeing and self-care needs. When used regularly it can help us recognise more fully, and at an early stage, if we are starting to struggle and need to make some adjustments to our self-care and workload.
Along with the word ‘context’, focusing on ‘variety’ supports us to develop a range of differing self-care, enjoyable and relaxing activities. This means that whatever the time of day and year, our financial situation, our desire to connect or the space and time we have available, there will be an option for us to utilise. This is essential, as a focus on one activity can lead to an increase in stress if we cannot do that, such as a physical injury meaning we cannot be active for a few days.
It is all too easy to hold ourselves to a higher standard than our clients – and indeed our supervisees; encouraging them to be kind and self-compassionate, whilst at the same moment pushing ourselves and ignoring our body’s requests for rest.
So, to put it simply, the keys to maintaining our own self-care and supporting that of our supervisees are to value ourselves, remember context and develop variety in our self-care activities.