We welcome our guest Clerissa Cooper, MS, LPC, NCC, CCH this week
Hello Folks! My name is Clerissa Cooper, and I am a professional counselor and a hypocrite. Wow! That’s one hell of a way to start a blog post, huh? But it’s true. Let me say more before your mind goes wild with all the possible ways you can think of to define my hypocrisy. If you ask those who know me well (personally or professionally) what my two most important values are, most if not all of those people would say authenticity and equity. So it is with these values in mind that I now must admit that though I constantly encourage my clients, colleagues, family members, and friends to take care of their health, I have been slacking on one aspect of my self-care. Let’s dive into what that means and how I’m now working to get to a balanced middle ground.
Reducing Vulnerability with PLEASE
As a Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) therapist, I intentionally use the coping and behavioral skills I constantly teach my clients both to improve my own life and to improve my ability to relate to and support my clients. I frequently encourage my clients to engage their “PLEASE” skill because taking care of the physical body helps reduce one’s vulnerability to intense negative emotions and allows one to be more productive and effective. “PLEASE” is an acronym for:
PL – treat physical illness
E – balanced eating (including avoiding sugar and foods that leave you highly emotional)
A – avoid mood-altering substances (including caffeine and nicotine) and take medications as prescribed
S – balanced sleep
E – exercise daily
When it comes to adulting and self-care, I do a lot of things to take care of myself. I work to pay my bills, see my therapist regularly, participate in multiple professional consultation groups and continuing education opportunities, attend concerts and live shows regularly, engage in social connections, practice mindfulness regularly, and do other things for fun and relaxation. I’m intentional about self-care that explicitly serves my mind and emotions. I’ve also been working hard to increase my adherence to “-EASE.” However, if I’m being honest “PL-” and I have been on the outs since my mother stopped making my doctor’s appointments for me in college. Hey now! Watch it with the judgmental thoughts and side eyes you’re throwing my way through the computer screen. I can’t hear or see them, but I’m managing my own judgmental urges after typing that sentence, so I know somewhere out there someone is thinking, “Well, now ain’t that a shame?” Or “Geez! Try adulting, why don’t ya!” Or “Get a grip!” The truth is that I have an ineffective yet long-lasting habit of prioritizing other things ahead of taking care of myself when I’m not feeling well physically.
Caring for Everything Except My Body
Honestly, I’ve been a rather healthy person my entire life – no major injuries, no major illnesses, and I have a reasonably high tolerance for pain. I’ve caught a cold maybe once every 1-2 years, and they tend to pass pretty quickly. I’m thankful for all of these facts. What I also have is a tendency to hope that seemingly minor physical discomforts will go away over time if I just wait long enough because, you know, I’ve got a lot of things to do and a doctor’s visit is really just an inconvenience. Yes, I recognize that now would be the time to do a good ol’ pros-and-cons list or cost-benefit analysis on this issue.
I’ve always worked jobs that expected me to commit long hours and that informally frowned on staff taking time off. Pair that with often being one of few – if not the only – women of color in some settings and my really high work ethic, and you’ve got the perfect mix that leads to long work hours, attending to others’ needs first, and minimal doctor, dentist, and optometrist visits for me. And honestly, I could get by with these minimal visits for most of my life because I have been a relatively healthy person with no major concerns.
The Impact of Aging
And then I turned 30 some years ago and my body changed. I started to experience aches, pains, and physical discomfort in considerable ways I’d never experienced before. My ineffective yet long-lasting habit of prioritizing other responsibilities like work ahead of treating physical illness and discomfort did not change.
And while I’ve been ineffective and inconsistent with caring for my body, many of my close family and friends were doing the same until they started having medical crises one after the other these last few years. Just in the last four months I’ve had four friends get hospitalized, some with life-threatening conditions. One of these friends, Dr. Anya Silver – who was an undergraduate English and Women’s Studies professor at Mercer University, a poet, recipient of a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, and one of the loveliest human beings I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing – died unexpectedly from septic pneumonia in August after over a decade of living with inflammatory breast cancer. As an aside, do yourself a favor and read The New York Times’ obituary of Anya and some of Anya’s poetry. The various ways she captures the dialectical human experience of anger in the face of death and the beauty of life are breathtaking and powerful.
Dialectics teaches us that:
•the universe is always filled with opposing sides and forces
•opposites can both be true and both have value
•change is the only constant
•everything and everyone are all connected
•meaning and truth evolve over time
•we influence our environment and the environment influences us
•the goal is to balance acceptance and change
For each of my friends who has been ill recently, their bodies were sending them messages that they later said they noticed and then ignored or excused. They were too busy, too tired, too annoyed, too worried, too. . . Too anything other than conscientious and willing to listen and attend to their bodies fully because they prioritized other things. And then their bodies forced a full-stop that was nearly deadly and definitely debilitating for some measure of time to many of them. After this sequence of events I believe noticing the dialectical experience here is important. The experiences of my family and friends tells me to take notice. I am taking notice and listening more fully to my body. Taking notice of how my body feels at any given moment of soreness or slight physical discomfort. Notice of when my body needs rest and when it needs movement. Notice of how my joints feel. Notice of how my breathing changes as I’m moving. Notice of headaches and muscle tension. Notice of stomach aches and toothaches and backaches and hip aches. I am slowing down to observe more mindfully, describe, listen, and attend to the fullness of my body’s experience. It’s not enough to do self-care that is only mind and emotion focused as I have been doing. I have to be even more intentional about body-focused self-care to ensure my vessel is in the best shape to facilitate healing and growth for my clients, family, friends, and especially myself.
Balancing Acceptance and Change
If like me you’ve been struggling in any of these areas, I encourage you to be gentle and kind with yourself. Judging yourself or swinging toward the fear of everything that could be wrong with one’s body and health likely will make the situation worse. Who needs shame and fear on top of discomfort? Not me. I’ve chosen to be forgiving and kind with myself. DBT reminds me to accept that over these years I’ve balanced my priorities, demands, wants, and needs the best I could in the moment. I also have to accept that maintaining only those efforts has been and will be insufficient and incomplete moving forward. Meaning and truth evolve over time, remember, and my new truth is that my body needs attention and care like never before. In DBT we define “radical” as total and complete. I now have fuller awareness and will take responsibility to prioritize radical self-care. I’ll be making and attending a few appointments before the year’s end with my primary care doctor, the dentist, and the optometrist. I even have a new gym membership I’ll be using. It’s time to liberate myself from fragmented self-care. I wish us all freedom, health, and radical self-care!
Clerissa Cooper, MS, LPC, NCC is the Owner and Clinical Director of North Atlanta DBT, LLC. You can find out more about Clerissa and her practice at www.northatlantadbt.com.
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