A common message we get in graduate school is the importance of self-care, repeated to us by program directors, advisors, clinical supervisors and research mentors. Self-care has been defined as providing adequate attention to one's own physical and psychological wellness (Beauchamp & Childress, 2001). Beyond being an aspirational goal, engaging in self-care has been described as an "ethical imperative" (Norcross & Barnett, 2008) and is part of the APA's Ethics Code (2002).
But the unspoken reality is that self-care in graduate school is a struggle. As trainees, we receive mixed messages — perform at a high level and meet all rigorous training demands, while making time for outside activities, relaxation and fun. Barnett has referred (PDF, 314KB) to this as "the impossible situation" for trainees. In graduate school, students are expected to juggle multiple responsibilities — schoolwork, research/lab commitments, clinical practicums (in clinical programs), teaching, a dissertation and more. Many also need to work through teaching or research assistantships or external employment. Students also face ongoing pressures to acquire, produce and compete for clinical hours, publications and grant funding. This is all in addition to maintaining our social relationships, raising our families and dealing with other personal issues.
It is an ongoing challenge to make time for self-care (relaxation, sleep, time with family and friends) in graduate school, because there are often not enough hours to accomplish everything we need to — or would like to — do. The truth is that if you are truly taking enough time for self-care, you may not be performing up to par in at least one of the aforementioned areas. Extracurricular activities can then produce stress and guilt over the work that you could or "should" be doing instead. This results in trainees not only feeling bad from stress, burnout and fatigue, but also feeling bad about their perceived failure at self-care.
For more than half of my graduate career, I failed at — or didn't care much about — self-care. I fell in love with psychology and wanted to learn and do everything I could, which meant sacrificing personal or relaxation time to meet both required and self-imposed goals. Several years into my training, I started to feel exhausted and burned out. This past year, I worked to make more time and space for myself (such as taking an occasional weekend day off). To my surprise, I actually got more work done. I realized that I was working faster because I was more focused and less tired. While I still work too much and continue to want to say yes to most opportunities, I feel that I have finally learned the value of self-care, in addition to the value of work. It is possible to find balance.
Self-care is important, for our own well-being and for the care of our clients. All of our work will be better if we are psychologically and physically healthy. But I think students should know that it is sometimes OK to fail at self-care. The conflict between work and life will continue throughout our careers. At times, we may work too much and inadvertently neglect others or ourselves. What's important is self-awareness, monitoring and knowing our boundaries — when it is OK to slip in either direction or when it may undermine our competence. So, whether you work through the occasional weekend or blow off some reading to do something fun — give yourself a break. It is all a normal part of the doctoral training experience.
Thank you all for an incredible year. Working with APAGS is an experience I would always say yes to, as it has been one of the most formative of my training. It has been a privilege serving as your chair.
American Psychological Association. (2002). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct. American Psychologist, 57, 1060-1073.
Barnett, J. E. Psychological wellness and self-care as an ethical imperative. Retrieved from: https://www.apa.org/careers/early-career/psychological-wellness.pdf (PDF, 314KB).
Beauchamp, T. L., & Childress, J. F. (2001). Principles of biomedical ethics (5th ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.
Norcross, J. C., & Barnett, J. E. (2008). Self-care as ethical imperative. The Register Report, Spring 2008. Retrieved from: http://www.nationalregister.org/trr_spring08_norcross.html.
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