“Care Bears Countdown, 4, 3, 2, 1.”
If you’re around my age, that should trigger some serious childhood memories: Saturday morning cartoons, sitting in front of the TV, eating some marshmallowy cereal.
And for those of you who don’t know the Care Bears, they’re fictional, multi-colored characters who live together in a place called Care-a-lot. Each bear has their own unique belly-badge that shoots love beams, and their sole purpose is to care for humans in need.
Of course, caring power has limits. There’s only so much one can do alone before the magic runs out. That’s why the Care Bears often travel as a group and gang up on the trouble to multiply their impact and attack in a joint rainbow stream.
This week is for the carers out there – the tired teachers, parents, health and wellness professionals, entrepreneurs… I see you, and I’ve come with fierce reinforcements.
It’s my pleasure to welcome clinical psychologist and female mental health advocate, Dr. Melissa Tiessen. Currently working for a private practice in Canada, Dr. Tiessen has served in a wide range of roles, both at home and abroad.
After years in hospital and community-based positions, Dr. Tiessen had witnessed too many carers disregard their own basic needs while providing excellent care for others. So, in 2019, she co-founded Intentional Therapist to help female mental health professionals incorporate self-care into their role. (Rather than viewing it as something separate and on the fringes.)
Today, Dr. Tiessen joins us to discuss the harm caused from self-neglect, and shares her expert tips for easy, creative, and playful ways to add self-care into our daily routine.
What You’ll Learn in this Episode:
- 30-60 second micro self-care
- The illusion you’ll be less busy “later”
- Choosing discomfort over resentment
- The expectation of having it all together
- A life you don’t need to escape from
Listen to the Full Episode
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Full Episode Transcript:
Hello. It is 9:00 am in New York, 3:00 pm in Johannesburg, and 9:00 pm in Bangkok. Welcome to the Expat Happy Hour. This is Sundae Schneider-Bean from www.sundaebean.com. I am a solution-orientated coach and intercultural strategist for individuals and organizations. I am on a mission to help you adapt and succeed when living abroad and get you through any life transition.
What do you do when you notice your cell phone battery is getting low at home? How about a long trip? How do you prepare when you have a long journey ahead and you might not be able to recharge? Right, you might be thinking, “Duh. I plug it in before it’s too low.” Or in the case of a long haul journey, you might make sure it’s fully charged until right before you go or some of you even buy a battery pack.
But why the heck don’t we do that for ourselves? Why do we invest so much time and attention about making sure our phones stay powered up but it’s so hard for us to recharge ourselves? That is a question that we cannot look away from, especially in the context of going a year into the COVID crisis when you are a parent or another carer like a teacher, a psychologist, a coach. Anyone who is responsible for other people who are going through their own challenges, right? This needs attention and that is why I have brought in an expert to support us with diving deep.
Dr. Melissa Tiessen is a clinical psychologist currently working in a private practice in Ottawa, Canada. She’s also worked in a range of hospitals and community based positions. She is also part of the National Association of Psychologists and the Canadian Psychological Association. Melissa is also no stranger to expat life as she’s lived abroad where she was involved with multiple nonprofit organizations dedicated to supporting the health and well-being of women and children.
Since 2019 Melissa has partnered with her business partner, Dr. Karen Dyck, who has co-founded the website Intentional Therapist, which aims to help female mental health professionals find intentional creative and playful ways to incorporate self-care into their lives. So who better to help us understand how we can care for ourselves what we care for others than someone who is doing this for a living?
Sundae: So based on what I’m seeing, I thought it would be a great idea to bring in a clinical psychologist and hear from her about what we all need to know as carers. So Melissa, welcome to Expat Happy Hour.
Melissa: Thank you so much for having me Sundae. Very excited to be here.
Sundae: So Melissa has years of experience as a qualified psychologist and has been alongside all of us in this pandemic. So Melissa, I’m really curious to hear from you, are you also seeing what I’m seeing? That the people that are in caring positions, whether it’s coaching or psychology or teaching or even just parenting, are feeling fatigue from everything yet putting themselves under pressure to have to do it perfectly because they’re in some sort of lead care role?
Melissa: So absolutely, Sundae, I think obviously a huge challenge through all of this is that even as a professional quotes Carer, whether you said a psychologist, a coach, a physician as well as just as a parent, nobody has had any sort of formal training in how to manage life during a pandemic. And so it has been an incredibly challenging time in a lot of ways to be navigating all of the uncertainty and just adaptations that have been required throughout this basically year now of the COVID-19 pandemic. And so I think there is a real challenge and potentially risk for someone who is in a professional caregiving role to put some extra pressure on themself to think, “Oh well. Yes. I’m in this role. So I should have it all together. I should know how to handle this.” You know, should, should, should, when again, of course, we’re all human as well. And so we’re going to be facing a lot of these same challenges. So it’s just so, so incredibly important always as a professional Carer to be taking good care of ourselves. But I think something that the pandemic has really highlighted is that it’s even more important than it’s ever been to be taking good care of ourselves.
Sundae: Well, and I was like hunkering down for 12 weeks, right? So naive, I was like, “So three months in China, then three months here and then we’re all good, we’re back to normal.” And now I’m looking at the photos in my phone, of like a year ago I was in Qatar and I had to come back a day early because of this and that. So no one, no one was prepared. as you said. So here’s the thing. This idea of taking care of yourself. Everybody knows the metaphor of, “Put your oxygen mask on first and then you can help other people.” We know this but actually doing it is another thing. And like you said, we’ve never been in this time before so our old strategies that worked might be reaching their limits. So what ideas do you have for people out there who are listening who feel like, “You know what? I’ve tried all the strategies I know. What else you got?” What do you think? Where do we start?
Melissa: You know Sundae, I think we start with really being clear about how we are defining self-care, taking care of ourselves. Because I think sometimes it’s really easy to fall into some stereotypical notions of that, and of course, it’s not just, and I think you’ve spoken about this probably a number of times on the podcast, but it’s not just about massages and pedicures and chocolate and wine or whatever it might be right? And bubble baths. Those things are important if you enjoy that but most importantly it’s not one size fits all. It’s something that is very individual, fluid, needs to adapt with changing circumstances. And so there’s actually a quote I came across a few months back and some listeners may have heard this as well. But I think a wonderful definition of self-care is, “Creating a life we don’t need to escape from.”
Melissa: Yeah. It’s pretty powerful when you hear it that way, right? And so of course the pandemic for a lot of us has kind of been a life, or at the very least a situation a time period that we would really like to escape from and don’t necessarily have these normal means of escape or rest or rejuvenation. But I think if we can think of self-care in the broader scheme in this way, then it helps us to be really intentional about the things that we do, the choices we make and how we weave that into our day to day lives.
So I think one of the key things that my partner Karen and I emphasize in our work around supporting other female mental health professionals in their self-care efforts and our own goal along with that is that, self-care is really a lot of the time about doing what may be actually more difficult. What’s actually kind of uncomfortable. Again, it’s not just just the bubble baths and treating ourselves. It’s the things that are uncomfortable like setting boundaries, like asking for help, like countering the shoulds that go through our mind all the time because that’s ultimately what’s going to allow us to create that life that we don’t want to escape.
Sundae: So the arm hair is standing up on my arms ever since you said the quote about creating a life that we don’t need to escape. So thank you for that absolute paradigm shift. I think that’s really important because as you mentioned, a lot of the ways that we talk about self-care is from a very privileged perspective. Not everybody has access to resources financially or in the support capacity to be able to escape from their lives through those things that you mentioned. So how do we build a life that doesn’t feel like we want to escape? And I love that you mentioned about the discomfort. I think I just did a podcast where I talked about how self-care is also painful. You choosing to do the painful thing. Whether it’s going to an osteopath, a chiropractor, whatever, working out. So you mentioned doing what’s uncomfortable, boundaries, asking for help and shoulds. What do you think people resist the most in learning?
Melissa: Oh, great question. I think to make sure I understand you completely Sundae, Do you mean what do people resist the most and taking care of themselves?
Sundae: Yeah, like is it the doing the uncomfortable thing? Or learning to have better boundaries? What is it that people know is good for them but really resist doing it?
Melissa: Yes, I think it’s all of those things. I think it’s also resisting having compassion for ourselves. I think it’s, of course, very often especially as a Carer, I think it’s very common to have thoughts like self-care is selfish. It means that I’m putting myself in front of others. And I think especially women, not exclusively women, but certainly women are socialized much more so than men to see themselves as carers, to put other people’s needs before their own. And so that obviously can be a really huge barrier to being able to take good care of ourselves. And of course, it’s so ironic because like you were saying, we all know the idea of, “Put your own mask on first.” But yeah, people seem to kind of kick and scream about that and resist it. And I think it comes from, again, that misconception that self-care is selfish. That putting our own needs in front of somebody else’s, it means I’m choosing me over them.
And in fact, and this is part of what we’re really trying to emphasize in the community of mental health professionals, that we’re building is that self-care is actually what helps us to do our job as effectively as possible. We are really our own best tool as a psychologist, a coach, a therapist, a physician, a teacher, even an entrepreneur, a business owner. Right? It’s the relationships that we build with other people that really have the biggest impact on our bottom line. And so who we are as a person is going to influence our ability to build those relationships with others and develop positive relationships that are sustainable. And so if we don’t take care of ourselves, we’re not going to be able to build those relationships. We’re not going to be able to be as effective. It’s almost as if a surgeon who doesn’t like sterilize their tools, so they can still show up and do their job. But they’re not going to be able to do nearly as well and there’s probably actually a lot of harm that’s going to come from that. So, if we think of it in that way, self-care then just becomes this integral part of the job description. It’s something that we actually need to weave into our role instead of seeing it as something separate.
And I think that’s a big challenge for a lot of people is seeing self-care as just something else that’s on the to-do list, right? And not realizing that this is what makes the job possible, basically. And I think it applies personally as well, who we are determines how we show up for the people who we are caring for, even if we’re not directly getting paid for that, right? Whether it’s children or elderly parents or an ill sibling, just being the best kind of us that we can be in relation with that other person that we’re caring for then again goes back to just creating our lives in this way that doesn’t feel like we need to escape from them. And that also we aren’t constantly feeling like we are in resistance to something.
Sundae: Right. I need to back up there. What you just said that self-care is not separate from your role, it took me probably, I don’t know, five years to figure that out as an entrepreneur. And I would work hard and then try to fit in self-care outside of my working hours.
Sundae: But the self-care I was trying to do was actually just trying to do damage control for the intense day I had.
Melissa: Yeah. Yeah.
Sundae: And I think what it took me to shift that is I call myself, I’m really proud of this now. So I like telling everybody. I used to call myself a “Recovering Perfectionist.” Now I call myself a “Perfectionist in Remission.” I’m not a perfectionist anymore. I wouldn’t say I’m perfectionism free, but I’m really far away from what I used to be and I’m proud of that. And one of the things I just started doing that’s been sustainable is I meditate during working hours. And that is in addition to the hour and a half I take off over lunch to work out, shower, and eat. So I am really proud of that because it is a way of saying, if I nurture myself, I know I will show up better for people. So I just want to shout out for anybody who is in the caring position, when you see self-care as something you have to do on top of your other tasks, what if it was instead of? Right?
Melissa: Exactly. Exactly. And this is a very similar shift that I’ve been making in my scheduling of my week, really emphasizing to myself the importance of having breaks between clients. Making sure that I’m including yeah, eating lunch in the schedule and as well as just time to do other things. Things like planning, like thinking about development ideas, right? Doing continuing education. So that again, it’s an integral part of my role, of my schedule. Just like you said, it’s not something that is happening on the fringes.
Sundae: And really pragmatic advice I could give there, is what I do is I block those things out in my schedule as a recurring event. So I have base health break from 10:30 to 12:00 forever and I have really clear boundaries when I start and stop work. And I have CEO times blocked, where I’m doing the planning and the strategy instead of just being the practitioner, right? I’ve got that blocked out as well. And what that does is it helps what I call, I did a podcast called Bending Reality, it helps you see if you are bending reality, how much time do you really have left in a day? How many clients can you really take on?
Melissa: Yes. Yes. And yeah, and I love hearing you say that Sundae. In our community, we just recently ran a little offering for our community members that we called White Space Fridays. And essentially this was just at a time that we encouraged everybody to take off together. Of course, appreciating not everybody in different time zones can be taking the same one or two hour block of time together but encouraging people if not then, doing it at some other point. But we shared some brief meditation exercises with people as like an opening and a closing exercise for that white space time to just really help people make that time in their schedule and know that others are doing it along with them and kind of creating that accountability and support which ultimately is about really normalizing this idea. That this is something we need to be doing. And again that we purposefully did it during work hours because it’s not supposed to be something that only happens on Sunday morning, for example.
Sundae: Right. Because usually we’re sleeping in and drinking coffee on a Sunday morning.
Melissa: Yeah or whatever else it is that rejuvenates you but yeah exactly.
Sundae: Can we just pause on harm for a second because I also know that a lot of people mistake self-care for selfish, right? And this idea of harm might capture someone’s attention. Like, “If I don’t take care of myself, I could actually cause harm,” and then it might be enough of a motivation. Do you, I don’t want to put you on the spot, but do you either have a personal example, or if you have a professional example of someone that you’ve worked with or supported where you’ve seen that happen and then through changing their practices and their approach, they were able to sort of recalibrate and come to a place of self-care?
Melissa: Yeah, that’s a great question Sundae. So I certainly know of some general examples of other psychologists who I mean, this is the reason we have ethical principles, right? Because when people aren’t taking good care of themselves, that is when the slippery slope to boundary violations or other kinds of ethical missteps occur. So, I mean, that’s the extreme version of that for sure and sadly I do know of some examples where that’s happened. But I think on a less extreme scale, it’s even just things like, I actually have a colleague who often jokingly talks about, “I just need to make it through this week and then everything’s going to be okay,” and then of course, that’s what she says every week. And then before you know it, months or even years have gone by and nothing is changing. And so we were actually speaking recently about how she really started to take that to heart and realize that, “Okay. This actually means that I need to be doing things differently. I don’t actually need to wear burnout or risk of burnout as like a badge of honor. This is not actually a good thing for me to be so busy. To be working 50-60 hours a week. To not be seeing my children regularly,” right?
And so she really did reevaluate things and took that as a sign for herself that, “Okay. This is not actually how I want to be spending my time,” right? “This is now the life that I am trying to be escaping from.” And so she really took that to heart and has made changes in her schedule. And actually the pandemic has been kind of helpful in the sense that it’s really forced her to look at work hours boundaries, just what matters most. Because for many of us, the workday has maybe been contracted as a result of less access to childcare for example.
Sundae: And I always say to people, I know they want to punch me in the face when I say this, but that in some levels the pandemic has been a horrible disaster in people’s personal lives and professional lives and financial lives. And I don’t want to negate that at all and there are times with families where because of the constraints that has been put around their lives, they’ve been forced to change how they’ve done things. They’ve been forced to do it differently because they had no other choice, right? So my hope is that people who are able to make it through this time will come out with better strategies in their hands for whatever else is coming our way. Does that make sense?
Melissa: Absolutely, and that’s a conversation I’ve had with colleagues as well. But many people have realized especially with having appointments over Zoom, many people talk about Zoom fatigue. And I think a lot of people have realized that they can’t see as many clients in a day, for example, when they’re doing it by video because it does take a lot more effort in a lot of ways to be just really trying to stay attuned to the client. And so as a result a lot of people I think have started scheduling their days in a different way and have been finding that that has been really beneficial for them. And again, this is something that they want to continue to do even once the magical day comes that we are able to return to our offices and see people in person on a more regular basis .
Sundae: And I think harm, we could think about it a lot of ways, like the extreme is where it’s an ethical violation only. But there’s other harm like I robbed myself of a relaxing evening with my kids if I’m too focused at work during the day, so I have a headache at night.
Sundae: Right? The harm is that I’m robbing myself of a relaxed evening. I’m robbing my children of a chill mom. Momzilla shows up at 7 p.m. The harm doesn’t have to be something dramatic. It can be those dangerous things that are tiny over time that make a big impact.
Sundae: I know you talked about compassion. I mean, what is compassion really?
Melissa: Such an important question. I think on a really basic level, compassion and very importantly self-compassion, is recognizing that it’s okay to be feeling whatever we’re feeling, good and bad. And I think this has been such a huge message that I know I have been emphasizing with all of my clients throughout the pandemic and really trying to take home myself as well. That, kind of like you’re saying, that so many people have been so negatively impacted, others less so. And I think even if you’re somebody who hasn’t been significantly negatively impacted by the pandemic, it’s still okay to be upset about the things that have changed. The things that you maybe have lost even if they might feel like they’re, quote-unquote, first world problems.
And so just really validating that all of these emotions are okay. They’re normal. And importantly we can have the tough stuff and the good stuff show up at the same time, and we don’t have to feel like we’re only allowed to have one or the other at once. And so really just validating for ourselves that, “Yeah, this is difficult.” Whether it’s the pandemic or just being a caregiver, it’s tough right? And so just letting that tough stuff show up and knowing that we don’t have to push it away is so valuable.
Sundae: That’s what I’ve been really working on. I’m doing this whole series on getting unstuck and one of the things I’m emphasizing is sitting in the stuck and giving ourselves permission to be there. That is, again, taken me also years to learn. I love escaping from uncomfortable things.
Sundae: That feels great! But I don’t know if it’s always a good thing. So we’ve talked about recognizing the urgency of self-care, it’s preventing harm. We looked at this idea of changing our systems so that we can have more space and energy, and incorporating self-care into our role. What are some other things that we can think about as Carers that we could start or stop doing in our everyday?
Melissa: A really important and also simple thing that we can do is really recognizing the importance of Mindful Self-care as well as Micro Self-care. So what I mean by both of those as you know, even when somebody already has some perhaps positive and adaptive self-care practices, we might be diminishing their benefits if we’re not actually practicing them mindfully, right? So maybe you take the time to go get your favorite latte but instead of actually sitting with that, even just for one minute and really, you know taking in the smell and the taste, the site of the foam, etcetera. And really recognizing yourself for making a point of doing that, you might be pairing that with some other activity like scrolling through social media or responding to emails. And how many of us will eat lunch while we’re on the computer at the same time, right?
So I think when we can really attend to and immerse ourself in our self-care activities, the things that we maybe even are already doing, that’s really going to help us to get maximum benefit from them. And I think it’s also really important to keep in mind that, certainly as we’ve been talking about it’s so important to be incorporating our self-care in larger ways into the roles that we have, but self-care can also be micro self-care, meaning 30 seconds, 1 minute. And there’s a wonderful acronym from this woman Lori Mihalich-Levin. I’m maybe saying that properly, probably not but she runs a website called Mindful Return and it’s particularly geared towards parents returning to the workforce after having their children, women in particular. So this practice that she promotes she calls it ISS, which stands for: Intentions, Stretch and Savour. And it’s this idea that just when you’re taking your shower, just literally taking 30 seconds to kind of set an intention for the day. Stretch, just feel your body. And then just Savour the sensations of the water, the smell of your shampoo, whatever it might be right? But just so that even in this very brief moment you’re purposefully doing something for yourself and you’re taking note of the fact that you’re doing that. And so obviously that’s not going to be enough to fully sustain us in our caring roles. But of course as you know that can then have positive ripple effects throughout the rest of our day.
Sundae: Right. It’s not enough but it’s not nothing.
Melissa: Yeah, and of course when you’re in a phase of life, like being a new parent, you know you’ve got an infant there’s not going to be as much time to to do all of the things that you might want to do. So, I think it’s just so important to remember that regardless of the phase that we might be in, there are still opportunities to be taking care of ourselves and that we need to make a point of doing those things intentionally.
Sundae: I’m just thinking of all those people who work the night shift, barely see their kids, doing two jobs. There’s so little wiggle room and like you said, if that is the reality that people are carrying then what are the micro things that we can do even, like you said, if you’re showering, just be present in that and let that be a nurturing experience.
Melissa: Yeah. And to go back to take your comment earlier Sundae, about sitting with the discomfort. I think that’s a really important additional way of thinking about self-care in terms of whether it’s asking for help or saying “no” when you’re requested to do something. And I’m sure you’re aware that Brene Brown talks about this a lot and something she really emphasizes is choosing discomfort over resentment. Because I think especially when you’re in a caregiving role, whether again of taking care of elderly parents or taking care of young children, resentment can so easily build up when somebody feels like everything is on their shoulders, right? And so if we can get a little bit more used to doing the things that aren’t so edible like saying “no” or asking other people for help, yes, that’s going to be uncomfortable but discomfort is temporary. Whereas resentment is going to be so much longer lasting and of course resentment is not going to be so helpful for our self-care and well-being either.
Sundae: I always say that resentment is poison for your relationships.
Melissa: Yeah. Yeah.
Sundae: So you’ve given us a lot to think about Melissa. I’m thinking about just the paradigm shift on what self-care is, right? That’s ultimately when we’ve reached a life that we don’t want to escape, emphasizing how really high-quality self-care includes doing uncomfortable things and saying “no” and allowing ourselves to be in a place where we ask for help and get our needs met. So thank you so much for that fresh perspective. Where can people find you if they want to learn more about the work that you’re doing?
Melissa: Yes, so myself and my business partner Karen have a website called www.IntentionalTherapist.ca. We’re out of Canada and we have a newsletter of course that we share with all of our community members. So our focus specifically is female mental health professionals and our mission really is to help support female mental health professionals, ourselves included, engaging in more intentional and playful and creative self-care. And really hopefully achieving this kind of paradigm shift that this is just a part of the role and something that we all prioritize without guilt.
Sundae: So good. so good. Thank you for sharing that with us because it’s definitely going to help beyond clinical psychology to all of those carers who are out there listening. Any last words of wisdom that you’d like to share with the listeners before we close today?
Melissa: I think I’ll just add that idea of the importance of creativity and play as well because when we are engaged in an activity like play whether it’s with kids or on our own. Of course as adults, it becomes a lot more challenging to play or be playful and it’s really a shame because there’s so many benefits to play and creativity. And in fact, it’s actually a huge part of what makes us human, particularly when we’re creating things, using our hands. And so I think the more that we can incorporate creative playful activities and strategies into our self-care, that even more we’re gonna get out of that.
Sundae: All right. Thank you so much. But listen, it’s been a pleasure having you here today on Expat Happy Hour.
Melissa: Thank you so much, Sundae.
This will be one of those interviews that sticks with me. The definition of self-care is: Living a life you don’t want to escape from.
I love how closely aligned Melissa and I are on self-care, around that it often means getting uncomfortable. Sometimes self-care is even painful, if you’ve ever been to the chiropractor, you know what I’m talking about. It requires excellent boundaries, hard conversations, and saying “no.” That is real self care.
And I know that it isn’t as much fun as thinking you can just take a bubble bath but without any of the above that brief escape, that soak, will be erased.
This episode is shared with love for all of those of you who are listening who are serving others. You could be a parent, a teacher, a psychologist, a coach or even an entrepreneur, we have a lot on the line. And it’s even more imperative that we do the right kind of self-care so we can continue to care for others.
So this is a shout out specifically to everyone who’s listening who’s living a globally mobile life and serves those who are living that olympic-level of complexity.
And the last thing I want to say about that is if you’re listening to this episode in the third week of March, today is a big day because I am opening the doors to apply for the next round of Expat Coach Coalition, carers for the expat community. Expat Coach Coalition is a complete industry proven, turnKey coaching solution for professional serving impacts. If you haven’t heard about it already, go ahead and check it out in the show notes. Graduates of the program unanimously agree that Expat Coach Coalition exceeded their expectations.
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You’ve been listening to Expat Happy hour with Sundae Schneider-Bean, thank you for listening. I’ll leave you with the words from Lalah Delia: “Self-care is how you take your power back.”