Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Poets, Like Therapists, Need To Practice 'Self-Care'!

The Importance of Self-Care for Poets

I’m currently participating in a workshop at Rooster Moans (aka Poetry Coop) and the group energy has led to many mutual reflections, including one on self-care. The basic idea is that that poets, much like therapists, use empathy to emotionally connect with wrenching issues: suicide, abuse, life-changing loss, and many others. Therapists are taught to practice “self-care” as part of their training, and can seek support from networks of colleagues in professional environments. Poets, however, have no such training. They are often left to deal with painful psychic states alone, without guidance.

Not only that, the way that poets employ empathy is less regulated, as a matter of practice, than therapists. Therapists are taught to moderate how much they assume a client’s perspective. Poets, however, dive in with full leaps, chasing after their muses. Therapists talk of boundaries in terms of proper and necessary limitations. Poets seek to break through boundaries, riding the gallop of headlong passions. Like other artists, poets sometimes even talk of possession or channeling. Given these mind-plumbing shifts, such brave bards might be in need of significant self-care.

In the current workshop there are a number of writers who are absolutely courageous. One of them is attempting to translate the work of a foreign poet who focuses on AIDS. The act of translating another’s work is itself a psyche-dissolving task. You could lose your sense of identity, immersed in another’s perspective. Adding to the risk is the agony of dealing with AIDS and its repercussions: the physical misery, the grief of family, the idiocy of bureaucratic logjams, and so on. A therapist whose clients have AIDS-related issues would need to practice serious self-care--shouldn’t a literary translator, too?

More than a few of the other writers in the workshop are braving realms of terrible loss. Empathy is being turned inward to summon the most raw and candid expressions. Therapists avoid this technique in practice: the therapist’s insightful gaze is always outward, toward another person, someone whom they do not know personally, outside the therapeutic relationship.

This leads to a consideration of the axis of subjective versus objective. Only in certain classical forms of therapy, such as Freudian psychoanalysis, do therapists strive to remain entirely detached; however, the concept of objectivity helps therapists to form a connection with a client that is balanced: a level of empathic and emotional contact supported by collective institutional experience and clinical research. The very notion of objectivity provides a kind of aegis in the mental health field. It warns against ‘going too far’, immersing so deeply in a client’s pain that effective counseling is hampered.

What is objectivity to a poet? Something to be torn up into pieces to make a wild mosaic! Art and objectivity don’t mix. Instead, the poet embraces subjectivity, steps forward instead of back, in an attempt to find voice and manifest unique creative expressions. Subjectivity, in this sense, runs renegade from constrictive norms. It is the wild, wild west of the mind in contrast to the principled community of prudent order.

None of this is meant to disparage the work of therapists. I worked on a crisis hotline for thirteen years, in the capacity of a volunteer counselor and also as a trainer of volunteers; so I have had a taste of what therapists do, and I want to emphasize: therapists are some of the most virtuous people in the world, strong psychically and patiently giving. Their own issues do get triggered via their practice; and as part of their self-care they have to listen to their own hearts, deal with their own psychological history, in a way that provides catharsis and sublimation.

Therapists do scream into their pillows, but not 'on the job'. They might also turn to poetry, even as poets might turn to counseling, to deal with their own feelings.

Therapists are in constant contact with a wide range of suffering people. They work long hours, often with a large case load. Many of their clients might be in grave crisis, or on the verge of such crisis. The therapist sits face-to-face in close proximity with someone in dire psychic need, providing care, validation, and guidance. Dealing with anguish is the norm. Clients could even have physical wounds visible, such as cuts or bruises from abuse, trauma, or a recent suicide attempt.

Poets proceed very differently, but their modus operandi is also psychologically profound. Like therapists, poets use empathy to investigate heart-tearing subjects. The poet does so without a structure of professional boundaries and principles for protection; without objectivity as a moor; while embracing their soulful task as an ardent quest. They have no client/healer separation to rely on as a buffer. Their ‘client’ might be their own tear-stained eyes, staring back at them from the mirror. Poets, also, focus on loved ones such as family members or romantic partners, a line that therapists are forbidden to cross by ethical standards. In short, the poet’s methods dismantle the protections that keep counselors from getting lost in a boundary-less place, one beyond social constructs of identity and reality.

In a way that therapists are not, poets are on their own.

You are probably asking, “What do you mean, exactly, by self-care?”

First of all, I’m not an expert on this subject. I have only a few basic suggestions.

That said, the simple answer is: making time for yourself to engage in activities that regenerate and empower your spirits. Within this broad statement, every person must find their own salutary path. In counseling circles, a supportive group of colleagues is considered wonderful for self-care. Self-care does not mean having to be alone or isolated. Poets talking with other poets, bolstering each other’s self-esteem, might be an excellent salve.

Another option is counseling. Many therapists have therapists. I personally wish we all had a good therapist. A nonjudgmental, accepting listener who helps one find a personalized healing path is so special.

Aside from those suggestions, we all have activities, hobbies, or impulses that pull us. It is important that these are done FOR YOU--not for your partner, not for your kids, not for anyone else. Self-care is not code for put-others-first care. When I worked on the hotline, some of our volunteers who took time to rest ended up supporting relatives or friends, or volunteering at other places!

You might have already figured out that the key element of self-care is time. You have to make time for you, no one else--you. Maybe that means going to a concert and hanging out with good friends--or maybe it means taking a nap. Whatever works! There is a corollary to this freedom, though: activities that are part of unhealthy cycles, such binge drinking, don’t count as self-care. Such Faustian bargains with your subconscious might allow you to keep going as a poet for a while, but only at a very destructive cost, to yourself and others as well.

Without self-care, therapists become less effective and eventually burn out. I am fairly certain a similar effect applies to poets. We are woefully behind therapists in recognizing the psychological ramifications of our scary, daring, ecstatic journeys of soul. It is important for us to be good to ourselves, not only as a mode of regeneration, but to enhance the fulfilment of the artistic journey as well!

Thanks for reading!


PS: The workshop is: Gilding the Lily: The Roots That Clutch, taking place on poetrycoop.com.

PPS: Many thanks to Cindy Hochman, Kim Peter Kovac, and Maureen Alsop from the workshop for helping me to forumlate these ideas!


  1. Great post Chris!! & not only must poets care for themselves, but also learn to manage huge amounts of rejection regarding their undertaking to write (from many angles!). That's something that therapists never need to actually contemplate in their work... it's important for writers to develop a certain tenacity, which is generally innate in their inklings to "write'.... Thank you for this insightful post!

  2. Excellent article, it's all too easy to forget to look after ourselves. Time in nature is my biggest form of self care