The last two years have been intense. The pandemic, the ongoing fight for racial, social and gender equality, the reality of climate change, and it’s all happening at once. Those of us in helping professions like astrology are not only facing all of this in our own emotional processes, but we’re also holding space for our clients to do the same. At times this can feel like shouldering double the load.
Surge capacity is our body’s ability to draw on extra resources in the short-term to face crises and stressful situations. Our fight/flight response is activated, adrenaline kicks in and we feel we can face almost anything. This is perfect for adapting to short-term crises but draw this out too long and that capacity becomes depleted, then the house of cards begins to fall.
When you’ve been caring too long and too deeply for others, it’s easy to lose sight of your own needs as you focus on the long list of needs of those you support. If you’ve been in any caring profession long enough, you learn to recognise the early signs of burnout. Mental vagueness, exhaustion that sleep doesn’t heal, increased worry and anxiety, loss of enthusiasm for work and other areas of life, an increase in irritability and frustration, and the list goes on. Working in a helping profession increases your risk of professional burnout generally, but add in the feelings of uncertainty and powerlessness of the current times and those risk factors increase dramatically.
Do you relate to any of this? Wondering what is the antidote? It lies in genuine and meaningful care of the self.
Our modern version of self-care is a sadly misappropriated term, associated with surface rituals and consumerism that only places a bandaid on the issues true care for self can heal. I’m not here to tell you about the miraculous cure of a handful of bath salts and a nice long soak in a candlelit tub. Instead I’ll point to history for guidance on what genuine self-care could be.
History of care for self
“Dear friend, you are an Athenian, citizen of the greatest city, more famous than any other for its knowledge and might. Yet are you not ashamed for devoting all your care to increasing your wealth, reputation, and honors, while not caring for or even considering your reason, truth, and constant improvement of your soul?” – Socrates
As far back as Ancient Greece philosophers, such as Socrates and Plato, discussed “care of self” and encouraged their fellow citizens to see it as an ethical responsibility to grow and develop yourself to create a better world. Their idea of self-care was activities that fed and tended to the soul, all as a path to knowing yourself and creating enlightenment.
More recently, feminist activist Audre Lorde stated “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” This was in response to the regular burnout and illness she and fellow activists faced in their struggle for racial, gender and sexual equality. Like securing your own oxygen mask before helping others, they knew that being an effective change agent meant honouring their own needs first before continuing to fight the fight. When seen from these perspectives, self-care is flipped from an indulgent activity to an essential pathway towards being a good human and an effective practitioner. Athletes have rest days, soldiers take regular leave so why wouldn’t helpers and carers?
For those in helping professions, holding and containing space for clients right now takes up more energy and resources, while perhaps also juggling a fuller client schedule. Committed and prioritised care for yourself is essential, not only so we can live full lives and continue to serve our clientele, but also to practice what we preach! And if you do love a candlelit bath, if it fills your cup have at it. And if you’d like to deepen your self-care routines, please read on for some suggestions to try.
Carved into the wall of The Temple of Apollo are the words ‘gnōthi seautón’ – Know Thyself. This ancient advice declares that humans must stand and live according their own nature, not social pressures and internal biases. Lorde also sought that keen edge between “overextending myself and stretching myself” that was informed by knowing herself well.
The suggestion is to be in constant dialogue with yourself to understand your own values, morals, ethics and principles so you can act in conscious alignment and not waste precious energy with internal conflict. Knowing your own biases and psychologies helps here, so you don’t fall into your own traps. For some, this could be curbing a well-meaning drive to rescue others that creates unnecessary self-sacrifice and leads clients to believe they are powerless. Or it could be staying aware of your own exacerbated worries and fears so you don’t project them onto clients in these polarised times.
One way to delve into self-awareness this includes journaling, that stream of consciousness kind where the subconscious has free reign. Another is therapy or supervision with a mentor. Meditation too has it’s place here, as you neutral stand aside and explore the subconscious mind.
Be realistic in your expectations of yourself
Try to stay aware of your limitations and not judge yourself, allow yourself to lower your expectations on what you can handle right now. If the number of clients you can see a day/week, has dropped in the last 18 months, know you’re not the only one. Your system is asking you to allow the extra time each day to slow down and recharge, to come out of fight/flight mode.
Structuring good boundaries into your workday
In the urgency of the situation last year did you overstretch yourself, and now find yourself out on a limb? It’s time to step back and slow down. Think realistically about how many clients a day you can support well, and how many days a week, then restructure your schedule to match. Don’t forget to count administration time in there too. And allow space for feedback from your body or gut to help you identify the right mix. Our brains and psychologies often write cheques our body cannot pay.
Building in time between clients for writing notes or a centring ritual is also important, even if it’s just a 5-minute breathing exercise to bring you back into your body. And if you are in the enviable position of more clients than you can handle, it’s ok to close your books, implement a waitlist or only open client bookings in certain windows for a specific length of time if the pressure of a waitlist is too much.
Honour your own needs
Stay aware of your own needs, from physical needs such as food and sleep, to emotional needs like downtime and space for processing out harder emotions from the day. And then actually honour these needs by creating space in your schedule for them and being aware of the barriers you may create to them.
Remember your spiritual needs as well, as crucial avenues towards making meaning and deriving purpose in your daily life. Higher connection beyond the physical realm is a way to rise above and make sense of any fear or angst clients may bring into your space.
Reach out and stay connected
Being connected with others is a key part of our biology, as ancient parts of our brain are wired to feel anxious when detached from human community. Talking with other helpers can be a healing process in itself, so you may wish to start a formal peer supervision group or share your experiences and feelings with trusted colleagues. For many this isn’t available easily in person, but using technology can be a stopgap until hugs IRL can happen again.
Nature as nurturer
We are wired to be in tune with the natural world around us, no matter how much technology and concrete we throw between us and it. Forest bathing, hiking, picnicking, beach walks; time communing with Mother Earth is a wonderful antidote to stress and adrenaline response by bringing us into our bodies and the present moment. Try deliberately walking at a slow pace and observing as much around you as you can. Place your back against a tree and see if you can feel it’s sap rising through your spine. Studying microlife can bring us out of our heads, trying drawing or photographing ants, beetles, bees or butterflies.
Allow yourself to play
Play in general is important, and the examples of play are as unique as each individual human is. Dr Stuart Brown says “Play helps us deal with difficulties, provides a sense of expansiveness, promotes mastery of our craft, and is an essential part of the creative process. Most important, true play that comes from our own inner needs and desires is the only path to finding lasting joy and satisfaction in our work. In the long run, work does not work without play.” Play is essential for creative thinking, imagination and is a sure-fire way to get into flow state. So try exploring whatever play is for you and deliberately do more of that!
Stimulate your happy hormones to refuel
Depleted surge capacity can be filled again by stimulating production of happy hormones (neurotransmitters) by finding ways to bring joy and fun into your world. Soaking up sunlight daily is a simple one that boosts serotonin and endorphins, and add in a minimum of 30 minutes of physical exercise to boost both of these plus dopamine levels as well. This could be as simple as a walk or add in fun with your favourite sport, dance class or yoga practice. And it’s not just physical fitness, sleep fitness is another way to boost your mood by going to bed at the same time each day and for a minimum of 7 hours each night.
Laughter is a wonderful antidote to stress and anxiety and also boosts your mood. Watch your favourite comedian, have a laugh with friends or even attend a laughter yoga class. And don’t beat yourself up if any of this seems out of touch, remember stress makes joy seem phoney. The trick is to fake it until you make it!
Creating or listening to music, cooking and eating your favourite foods also stimulate pleasure hormones, as can playing or cuddling pets and your favourite humans.
Interestingly, the Ancient Greek suggestions for soul care remain good guidance for all of this, included meditation, regular fasting, prayer, education, music and exercise. Add in 20 mins of direct sunlight per day, healthy meals and a dash of what brings you joy to round this out.