Intro to Self-Care

Published in on Jun 23, 2021

You cannot take care of other people, in a professional capacity, unless you also take care of yourself. You just can’t; it won’t work. Your attempts will blow up in your face or wear you out or both -- maybe not right away, but inevitably. Ask me how I know.

One way or another, lack of self care for practitioners can create safety problems, so part of being safety-positive is being self-care-positive. Self-care isn’t just a good thing, it’s a necessary thing for acupuncturists, as foundational as Clean Needle Technique. Just like CNT, self-care needs to be part of an acupuncturist’s routine, not something reserved for special occasions.

I think the recovery community has a lot to teach acupuncturists about self-care. (Anybody who self-identifies as a healer should probably investigate the literature of codependency -- just sayin’.) Here’s a quote from writer Anne Lamott’s TED talk, “Twelve Truths I Learned from Life and Writing”:

“We can't arrange peace or lasting improvement for the people we love most in the world. They have to find their own ways, their own answers. If it's someone else's problem, you probably don't have the answer, anyway...Our help is usually not very helpful. Our help is often toxic. And help is the sunny side of control. Stop helping so much. Don't get your help and goodness all over everybody... While fixing and saving and trying to rescue is futile, radical self-care is quantum, and it radiates out from you into the atmosphere like a little fresh air. It's a huge gift to the world. When people respond by saying, "Well, isn't she full of herself," just smile obliquely like Mona Lisa and make both of you a nice cup of tea. Being full of affection for one's goofy, self-centered, cranky, annoying self is home. It's where world peace begins.”

World peace, and also, sane well-ordered acupuncture practices. One of the things that some people love about the community acupuncturist job is that it’s so demanding that in order to do it at all, you have to develop a routine of self-care. It’s not really optional.

There’s a difference between having a personal life and running a small business (especially one based on taking care of other people), and that difference manifests in all sorts of ways, all the time. Your business needs certain things, while you as an individual human need others. The more specific and NEUTRAL you can be about what each of those are, and the more honest you can be about when they’re in conflict, the better things will go. Think of it as having boundaries with your practice the way you’d have boundaries in a relationship with another human: don’t expect the relationship by itself to meet all of your needs or their needs; expect your needs and their needs to not align perfectly; and expect to have to work on it.

Arguments you have with yourself to the effect of, well I shouldn’t need X, are a sign that you are headed nowhere good. You’re a human animal -- a species of primate, if you want to get technical about it. Just like animals have natural habitats and require certain natural resources that vary according to their individual species, you have limits and you have needs that may be very specific. At the most basic level, your animal needs include: food, hydration, bathroom breaks, and good ergonomics.

Jeff Levin of SOAP (Sacramento and Oakland Acupuncture Projects) put it this way in his excellent keynote speech:

“The best and most consistent advice regarding self care in community acupuncture I’ve ever heard, and can give, is: eat well. Eat well. Eat well before you go into the clinic to start working. Eat well while you are seeing patients. If you can manage it, eat well when you are done, so you can do it all again tomorrow.

The most challenging snack to snag is eating while you are seeing patients. For this, I highly recommend hard boiled eggs. Preferably they already have their shell removed and are lightly salted with an artisanal sea salt from New Zealand, and held in a small glass jar, ready to eat quickly in two tasty and nourishing bites. If you are vegan, unsulfured dried apricots are also a quick and tasty treat. Pie is good too, sweet or savory, meat or fruit, in another, slightly larger, wide mouth jar. Bring a fork or large metal spoon. Don’t make it complicated to eat.

Along with eating well, you should drink well. Coffee is good if you like coffee. It goes well with hard boiled eggs. Tea is also acceptable. Most important is water. Get a big pint glass, fill it with cold filtered water and leave it somewhere in the clinic that you are consistently coming back to. Each time you see the glass, drink. You should drink at least a pint of water for every 15 acupuncture treatments that you do which is about 267 pints of water a year. That’s some good work hydration.”

Other important aspects of self-care for community acupuncturists include:

Manage your own stress. This looks different for every person but it’s crucial. Your personal stress management routine might include meditation, regular exercise, journaling, spending time in nature, or any number of creative endeavors (playing music, making art, cooking, etc). Be careful about self-medication to manage stress, or as Jeff said, “Whether or not you are burnt out, you might want to drink a lot of alcohol. Trust me. Try not to. Whatever is the amount of alcohol you are drinking, try to drink a little less. Here’s a drinking game to try: don’t drink more than 14 alcoholic beverages in a week, or more than 4 in a day. It’s the worst drinking game ever!”

Rest. This includes sleep hygiene and what poet Ross Gay describes as “the holy nap”. Also, just plain downtime, otherwise known as doing nothing. (You might want to check out the book Laziness Does Not Exist by Dr. Devon Price for a really thorough analysis of what might stop you from resting.)(Spoiler: it's capitalism!)

Consider getting bodywork (including acupuncture!) and/or therapy. You probably need them.

Have fun and pleasure in your life -- or things you do only because you enjoy them, not because they’re virtuous or productive. They can be very small and still be effective. For example: The Multnomah County Library has a feature called Overdrive (many other library systems have it as well), which allows you to check out up to 50 ebooks at a time; it’s free, you just need a library card and some kind of e-reader like a Kindle. I’ve read all sorts of books for entertainment I’d never have been able to read otherwise. (See also: Murderbot.)

Have a buddy. Talk to someone regularly who understands what you do in your job, someone who just gets it without needing lots of explanation. This can be an inexpressible relief. One of my most important self-care habits is a weekly phone date with a fellow community acupuncturist.

Learn how to control your attention (there are any number of techniques available, here’s the one I use) and then attempt to actually control it. You will fail at this, over and over; everybody fails at this -- but it will make your life so much better to keep attempting it regardless. For some people, controlling their attention represents a religious or spiritual practice, and for some, it doesn’t. Either way, it’s a type of self-care that doesn’t cost anything and pays huge dividends.

It’s taken me a long time to realize that treating myself like an afterthought to the common good is not sustainable. My own self-care is very much a work in progress. But self-care is another one of those things where doing it badly is a spectacular improvement over not trying to do it at all. Give it a go, and give yourself credit for trying. And then keep trying.