Ranjana Srinivasan is a doctoral candidate in the Counseling Psychology program at Teachers College Columbia University. Ranjana received her undergraduate degree from Berklee College of Music where she graduated summa cum laude with a major in Music Therapy and minor in Psychology. She also attended Teachers College for her masters degrees in both Education and Counseling Psychology. Ranjana is currently a pre-doctoral extern at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital and will be starting her internship year this July within the VA NY Harbor Health Care System. Her research focuses on increasing mental health and multicultural awareness around the clinical needs of the South Asian American population, specifically regarding the domains of body image and eating disorder issues, as well as common microaggressive encounters.
Ranjana and I worked together for years as office staff at Teachers College Columbia University, where we practiced self-care breaks by walking across the street to Joe’s Coffee. I can honestly say I’m a better person for Ranjana’s friendship. She’s a phenomenal counselor and a hardworking PhD student, and I appreciate her taking time out of her ridiculously busy schedule to answer some questions about self-care.
**TW for mentions of self harm, depression, and suicidal thoughts.**
Why is it challenging to prioritize self care as a full time student?
I run a DBT [Dialectical Behavioral Therapy] group, and something we talk about is how in our society, we’re taught to multitask. It’s something that’s seen as a good quality. And things that are given more praise than others are those that push you to the very limit. So those who do that get more praise, they get more reward, etc, etc, and going the opposite direction you get more negative consequences. So I feel like naturally, you’re pushed to work until you’re broken. Which really leaves little room for self-care.
When you’re overcome by all this multitasking and the pressure on you as a student and a teacher and a counselor, how do you know when it’s time to sneak in some self-care? How can you tell when a client is prioritizing their needs or when self-care might be past due?
From a therapeutic perspective, there are steps on a ladder that tell you you’re not taking care of yourself. So the first is always self harming behaviors: if you’re having suicidal thoughts or experiencing heavy depression, if you’re drinking a lot, using substances. And then you think about Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs: are you eating? Are you sleeping? Are you showering? If these things are not being met, then you know something is not functioning right. Next step: are your social relationships intact? Are they not? Kind of going down the ladder. If something in that is being broken, that’s when you need to address through self-care.
So what’s your first advice on how to start addressing that? If you showed up to yourself for a counseling session, what advice would you offer yourself?
A lot of self reflection. One thing I do is to give myself tasks to complete for the day—knowing I have tasks for the next day, but in this day, this is what I need to do, and after I’ve finished I need to give myself and my brain a rest. Whether that’s watching a TV show, or exercising, I need to designate that time for myself.
Sometimes people do a time cutoff. Like at 8pm, I’m done. I can’t work any further, and this is my limit. The brain doesn’t even function after a certain point in the night for some people—everyone’s different—but knowing that gap of time that works best for you, and to give yourself that cutoff.
I do know people who do smaller things, whether that’s having a coffee during the workday in order to get through the day. If that’s what you need, and you have the finances and the ability to do that. It’s nice to have that to soothe you in the moment, and if that works, then that’s great.
Knowing when you need to take a break or when you need to walk away, when you need alone time. These are all things that are helpful.
What kind of benefits are people going to see from taking this sort of time?
If you’re able to find that balance, then your work or whatever you’re trying to accomplish is going to be of higher quality. Also, there’s no burnout. I think that’s really the goal. Especially as a grad student, it’s so easy to throw yourself into everything. But how are you going to pace yourself so that you don’t reach the end burned out—and lose your passion for what you’re doing? I think that’s really key. You don’t want to lose the love of what you do. Which I think happened to me, especially with music. These musicians practice and practice for hours on end in these practice rooms and at the end of the day, is it for the love of it? Or because you want to perfect it? And I know a lot of musicians who’ve lost that love and lust for their craft because of that. So do it to the point of passion, but if that’s lost, you’ve got to tone it down.
That’s such a good point. I don’t think we talk enough about passion. We’re thinking we’re going to burn out and crash and not feel well, but we forget that we’re also at risk of not loving what we’re doing anymore, potentially. I hadn’t thought about that.
The day I go into session and I don’t feel fulfilled, I think I need to check myself because that means something’s going on for me. How do I re-engage with this thing that I’ve dedicated six years of my life to? There must be something there that gives me purpose, so I want to find that again.
Is there anything you’d like to add, or do you have any final tips about the idea of self-care?
There is this systematic way of doing it where you plan to walk away for ten minutes, but also just being aware of what you need in the moment and remembering what you want in life. Most people want love, they want happiness, and kind of leaning toward that and finding passion.
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