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Give yourself a do-over professionally

October 9, 2013
by David J. Powell, PhD
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If my life as an addiction professional were a do-over, there are many things I’d do differently, especially in the area of self-care. We speak about self-care a lot, but frankly, we don’t even know how to spell the word.

Teachers tell us to “use our vacation time,” “take time off when we’re overwhelmed,” “get a life,” “go for walks in the woods,” “nurture our spiritual life.” All of these are wise recommendations and valid forms of self-care. But some of my do-overs would be more basic.

Life is not like a song that you learn and then get to sing over again. Just about when you’ve learned the tune of life, it’s over. But there are some do-overs, especially for people in recovery. So if you are just learning the tune of life, if you are new to the field of counseling, here are some pearls of wisdom I’ve learned over my nearly 50 years in the addictions field.

Care of the body equals care of the soul

I’ve wrestled with maintaining a healthy weight all my life. Maybe it was the fault of my mother’s genes, or maybe it was my love for a dish of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream before bedtime. Regardless, when I maintain a healthy weight, I feel lighter and have fewer back problems. It’s easier on my knees and my heart. I have more energy. After all, as counselors we figuratively carry the burdens of our clients on our backs, so we do not need the 10 to 20 extra pounds on us too.

Let’s be honest. As I look out into my audiences, I see many overweight counselors. I hope that does not seem critical or judgmental—after all, I’ve already admitted to my periodic need to lose weight. But the burden of being a counselor is not aided by the added weight we carry. What kind of role models are we to our clients when we project images of poor self-care, especially concerning our weight? So, one do-over for me would be to try to live a healthier life and to maintain a healthy weight.

Stay fit

OK, so I am a guy and I’ve inflicted a lot of pain and injury on my body through sports, and trying to do crazy stuff. As a teenager, trying to throw a lit firecracker in my left hand and having it go off too soon may have contributed to my being hard of hearing in that ear. Or maybe it was from sitting too close to amplifiers and speakers at rock concerts in the 1960s. Whatever excuse I may use, one do-over would be, at an earlier age, to practice yoga, t’ai chi, qigong, to run daily, to ride a bike more, whatever form of exercise would have worked.

Now, as I approach my 70s, the normal aches and pains I had in my 20s and 30s are heightened by age. Be careful of the person who says he can still do at 50 what he did at 20. He probably wasn’t doing much at 20. So my do-over would be to try to stay young longer, and stay fit more. I think some of the burnout we experience may be as a result of poor self-care of our body.

On the flip side of that, we read a lot about anti-aging methods. Perhaps, aging also means to age gracefully, growing into old age, and accepting that which we cannot change. Somewhere in there lies the balance I would like to have found as I got older.

Accept life on its terms

The antidote for exhaustion is not necessarily rest but wholeheartedness. This means having a spiritual life, having a sense of purpose, being clear on why you do what you do. The person who has a “why” can live with any “how” in life. It should be no surprise that the longest-selling book on the New York Times bestseller list is Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Life. Do you have a sense of purpose in what you do? Spiritual self-care is an essential tool in coping with burnout.

Forget the “if onlys.” John Lennon, 30 years ago, said, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Forget what might have been. We live life forward but understand it backwards. I’ve always thought that I should have been a physician, but I wouldn’t trade the wonderful career I’ve had for a different course in life. Especially when I remember that I hated chemistry, math and most science courses in college—which all seem to be essential for getting into medical school. I also suffer from CRS disease: “Can’t remember stuff.” What makes me think I could remember all that anatomy and biochemistry? What makes me think I could have been a doctor?

Life is what it is. Mick Jagger said, “You can’t always get what you want,” but “you get what you need.” Sorry, Mick, you were wrong. In life, you don’t usually get what you want or what you need. You get what you get. So, enjoy what you have and don’t long for it to have been any different.

Having said all that, there are chances in life for do-overs. You can take care of yourself now, you can connect to your spiritual core. There are two essential questions in life. First, what do you want to do with your life? What do you want to do with this one wild and precious life? (Thank you, Mary Oliver.) And, what are you willing to sacrifice to get it? (Thank you, Buddha).

So, do over what you can, start early, live in the present moment, and you’ll be a better addiction professional in the end.

David J. Powell, PhD, is an Assistant Clinical Professor at the Yale University School of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry. He is also President of the International Center for Health Concerns, Inc. His e-mail address is