There’s a beleaguered mom on the couch in my office, and she’s feeling skeptical about my idea that she needs to “double-up on self-care.” She shakes her head—tosses it—and says, half-pitifully/half-defiantly: “Even if I had a few minutes alone, I don’t even know what to do to take care of myself. All I want is to sleep. Creativity is not even really a need right now—it’s like wishing for the moon. I just want to work, pick my kids up from school, and make dinner without feeling like I am going to punch someone in the face.”

We talk about martyrdom—about her own mom’s pattern (that she desperately does not want to repeat) of losing track of herself within a family and all the needs there, of the divorce, of the drinking. My client is clear, is crusading, that this will not happen to her. But I have to let her know that I don’t see her protecting the most precious resource in the family—the sanity and happiness of the mother. The red flag, to me, is her burnout.

So we talk some more, we identify three regular times in her day when she has a few minutes to herself: after school drop-off on her way to work; an occasional lunchtime when work is not too demanding; and on the way from work back to pick kids up from school. Then based on what she thinks she might enjoy, we identify three experiments she can try during these times: a journal and pen and a list of simple questions like, “how are you feeling?”, “what are you grateful for?”; a gentle, non-preachy meditation recording she can listen to; and a “mini” relaxation exercise we co-create, focusing on tracking her breath for a few minutes. This is not enlightenment, but it is a line in the sand symbolizing that the mother’s mental and emotional health is very important. I know too that if she can get in the habit of nurturing a relationship with herself, it will evolve and it may one day be enlightenment.

It should be enough to do this because the mother is a person who needs what every person needs. But it is worth saying, because of the sticky habit of martyrdom associated with mothering, that the whole family benefits—partners, kids, pets—when mother is happy. In fact, according to a study done at the Institute for Social and Economic Research, a mother’s happiness is the number one indicator for a child’s happiness.

Moms are my specialty, but I am writing today to make an association between therapists and moms. The day I worked with this mother on her first steps to reclaiming her relationship with herself, I spent the morning at an HIV+ Women’s Health Clinic from 8 to 12 seeing deeply troubled clients, then I saw private practice clients from 12:30-3:30; then rushed over to see my supervisor, then back to the office for several evening clients. I had my whole day planned out, down to the taxi I took to make supervision on time; and the important phone call squeezed in before a session with a client who is always a few minutes late. There was only one problem I realized by mid-day—I had not budgeted any time to get or eat food, all day. Many of my therapist friends and colleagues have told me of similar schedules, and when there is not a commitment to self-care, it is a big problem for therapists.

It was that day that the connection between mothering and therapizing hit me—both are based on nurturing others, both can tend towards an unhealthy martyrdom. I assert that both roles need a radical re-balancing program in the form of intensive, sumptuous, deep self-care for the nurturer. And the better the self-care, the better the mom or therapist will be at their job of caring for others. This is provable in the simplest of mind-body studies available to look into everywhere, but it is something I also know in my bones. When I am thinking, writing, resting, feeding myself really well, having sex, and laughing a lot, I am a great mom and a great therapist: I feel the creative energy and power that comes from a sense of flow and gratitude. From this place, giving feels natural and right.

Therapists, like moms, may have a tendency, in a life dedicated to listening intently to others’ troubles, to set aside or even sometimes ignore their own needs. But it is not easy to prioritize self-care for anyone these days. True self-care involves placing the self at the center of the spotlight for a time; and listening in, tenderly, to what the soul is asking for. It is a mysterious process. This is the realm of the numinous—what ultimately makes our lives feel fulfilling and where the deep joy that makes life worth living is found.

Self-care is a process of turning inward, thinking and feeling about what brings our unique self true refreshment. I’ve been through this process with a lot of moms lately and I’ve seen some beautifully unique ideas emerge that I think are worth sharing for inspiration: learning to play the drums, learning to surf, staying with a friend a few times a month, scheduling a regular date with a partner for sex in the daytime, cutting out drinking and instead writing in a journal every night at cocktail hour, starting to bike to work, making an altar to the things that bring joy, or drawing with kids.

I know it can be hard for moms and therapists, and lots of other conscientious people to institute a program of self-care. It’s vulnerable to look inward and try to figure out what really feeds and nourishes us. It is different than simply taking care of ourselves by going to the gym or getting enough sleep (though it can include these things). It is a process of experimentation, and it will probably be somewhat elusive at times. Many times our first guesses about what will soothe and inspire us are wrong—the pilates class is full of competitive supermodel types; the writing class causes us deadline anxiety; the date night dancing lesson is awkward. The important thing is to try to find what gives us that flow-feeling, that yumminess, that bliss. Like athletes who train every day to be at the top of their game, I think it makes sense for therapists to try to live in such a way that they are integrally joyful and feel a natural conviction that life is a gift.

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy