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Episode 230: Practicing Self-Care for Mental and Business Wellbeing —with Dr. Scott Thomas

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Deb Zahn: I want to welcome you to this week's episode of the Craft of Consulting Podcast. So, in this episode, we're going to talk about self-care. We're going to talk about ways that you can think about and start to enact strategies to take care of yourself while you're trying to build your consulting business and while you're serving your clients. And I brought on a very special guest to talk about this.

It is Dr. Scott Thomas, who is my beloved husband, and he has been giving trainings on this as part of his work in the mental health field. And so we're going to dig into it in some details and talk about why it matters so much and what you can do to make it better for yourself. So, let's get started. Hi, I want to welcome to my show today, Dr. Scott Thomas, aka my husband. Scott, welcome to the show again.

Dr. Scott Thomas: Oh, thank you very much.

Deb Zahn: So, let's start off, tell my listeners what you do.

Dr. Scott Thomas: I am the Director of Training and Quality Assurance at MHANYS, which is the Mental Health Association in New York State. It's a nonprofit located in Albany but works throughout the state of New York.

Deb Zahn: Wonderful. And we're going to be talking about a key aspect of mental health, which is self-care. And I want to point out a little bit, interestingly enough, you and I met when I was part of the self-care program at Kaiser, but we met something different. We were not talking so much about what we're going to talk about today, we were talking about what do you do if you have bunions. This is different. So, for the sake of our conversation, how do you define self-care?

Dr. Scott Thomas: Well, I hate to turn on self, but it's basically care of the self, which is sometimes how it's referred to in the literature and stuff. And I define it in terms of what we all, animals kind of do naturally. We take care of ourselves, animals groom themselves, insects clean their little wings. It's just this care that we take by brushing our teeth, by waking up, washing our face, seeing if we have the clothes that fit. We care for ourself sort of every hour of every day. So, I kind of define it as quite a natural behavior of humans and all animals.

Deb Zahn: That's right. Unless I imagine it gets out of whack and we might be doing the hygiene things, but we're not attending to our mental self and our emotional self on a regular enough basis that it can kind of get in the way. So, tell me, what is it that you're seeing out in the world that makes self-care so important in the times that we live in?

Dr. Scott Thomas: One of the most remarkable things, it was, I think it might be a year old now, it's a survey that was done by Kaiser Family Foundation, I believe they did it. And they're asking in the US how many people considered that we were in mental health crisis. And 90% of the people they surveyed believed that we were in a mental health crisis, which is amazing if you consider the polarization that goes on around every single issue that you can talk about. The idea that in America 90% would agree about anything I think is remarkable. And that's actually how I lead usually when I talk about self-care out in the world now. And it gets most people's attention saying, "Oh, we're all seeing this."

Deb Zahn: Yeah. And the reason I wanted to talk about this today is for consultants, which you've been a consultant, and I'm currently a consultant. Self-care always matters for ourselves, but it also matters when we are working with people because that 90% of people agree we're in a mental health crisis, means that it's likely touching so many aspects of what a consultant does, both with themselves, with their own business and the folks that they're actually working with.

So, and I've been hearing it a lot. And I don't know. Well, I do know because we talk about it, we're in conversations and suddenly someone just says, "I'm having a really tough time." And it's not the usual stuff, although the usual stuff exacerbates it, where it's family, it's illness, it's just the day-to-day trying to get a business going, all of that stuff. But there seems to be sort of extra things that are going on that are causing a lot of folks to be struggling. What are you hearing when you're out talking with folks?

Dr. Scott Thomas: I've never heard anything like this in my life. I can talk to anyone, I can talk to family, friends, coworkers. And yeah, I'm a little bit older and in the 70s there was tension among political parties, then the 80s had some serious social issues, but there's never, at least in my experience, been such a pervasive reference to how people are feeling. People just bring it up all the time. And I think obviously COVID really amped it up but even before that. So, I guess, I would just say I've never seen anything like it in my life, again, I would say in terms of how many different people will bring it up in all sorts of conversations.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. And you know I hear the same thing. So, that's why I wanted to talk about this today. So, let's talk about what does self-care look like? So, if it's not the version that I did when we first worked together, which was good, important stuff, which is how you take care of medical issues that you may be having, but now we're getting more at the, what's going on inside folks in terms of mental health. What are some possibilities for how to make it better?

Dr. Scott Thomas: I think a lot of it is how we think about it. The trouble is a lot of times self-care can almost look like pampering or take a day break, do this or do that. And so I think one of the best ways to approach self-care as it's a part of overall care, is that we do other things. We go to doctors, we have friends, help us out with something, we're part of a group and everything.

And just I guess, I would say bringing self-care back into some sort of normalcy that, "OK, now what do I have to do? I have to do something with myself." And so I guess, what I'm trying to say is it's been specialized to such a degree or heightened in terms of a thing that we've almost lost just how it should be. "OK, I'm getting up. I'm going to do some stuff because this is good for me to do. Maybe I'll do a little more exercise and such." But yeah, something about bringing it back in an easy normal way.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. No. Well, I think what happened is at least I felt like for a while, self-care, aside from some of the medical stuff that I used to work on was like, "Go get a pedicure. Go to spa." The more of the pampering type of stuff as opposed to building self-care into the daily aspects and using it as a frame by which you make decisions. And I know that you like to talk about the history of self-care not being a pampering history, but being something that is so much part of important movements that have happened certainly in the US. Can you share a little bit about that because I know you've delved into that?

Dr. Scott Thomas: Well, you can go back to, well, even before the US. Again, care of the self might've come out of Socrates. The idea that the self should be given special attention. You can go back in history. In Taoism, you have self-cultivation. And in that, it's interesting to think of because from a Taoist sort of a more Eastern view of the self, the self is not this independent existing thing that you're trying to help, but the self is part of this wide world.

And so the self that you're trying to sort of keep alive and healthy is the same self that's related to family and friends and society. And when Socrates is talking about it, it's like, "Wait, this is a very important thing." I mean, he's talking about care of the soul mostly, but again, very important that way. And when you get to the US, you can see very strong sort of political currents around self-care, which is we have to take care of ourself. I believe Angela Davis talks about it. Audre Lorde talks about it. And so you can see it almost, it's interesting because sometimes self-care can be thought of as selfish, but if again, you go back in sort of a political history in the US, you can see it as a, almost a political response to, "Wait a second, I have a right to care for myself, make myself strong. I'm not just a worker. I'm not just this, I am of worth to give time and attention to." So, yeah, I just think it's so important to, again, expand how we think of self-care and do it either historically long ago or bring it back into the US politically or around the world. Yeah.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. And so in terms of what folks can actually do, and I know we've talked about things that you can do to increase it and then things that you cannot do to not harm it. So, what are some of the things that you would put in that category? If someone's listening to this and saying, "You know what? I'm not really attending to myself. I'm burnt out. I feel weighted by the world and I'm having a really hard time," what would you encourage folks to explore?

Dr. Scott Thomas: Well, I guess, more than actual things. Again, I think a lot of times how we think about things is what gets in the way. So, I would have someone sit back and kind of say, "OK, I'm not doing maybe as much self-care as I should be. Is it the time? Do I really not have enough time in the day? Is it effort? Do I need to be putting more effort into it? Am I not motivated? How come I'm not motivated?" Maybe it is skill-based, "I'm not sure what to do, should I be exercising or something?" But I actually think sitting back. Or it could be resentment. I mean, that's one thing that I've thought about recently, which is if you're taking care of other people and you're working really hard these days, and then it's like, "OK, now I'm supposed to go exercising." You just resent the fact that now you have to put extra effort even to taking care of yourself.

I sometimes don't do it. There are exercises I should be doing for my health that are very good for different parts of things that I wrestle with, and I don't do it. And part of the reason I don't do it is I'm tired of doing stuff. I just don't want to do it. So, the way around that, again, I don't think is finding a special activity to do, but I think there's a lot to be said for just self-reflection, which is to sit back and say, "OK, I'm not taking care of myself these days." Could be because you're angry at your life, you're angry at yourself. I mean, there has to be some way to take a look and say, "What am I not doing?" Maybe you do think of self-care as indulgent and, "I'm only supposed to be taking care of others." But some sort of self-analysis, some self-reflection because it's who we have access to.

It's something I know I've brought up, usually when I talk about self-care. I usually get around to the point that at the end of the day we have access to ourselves. Would we like to see society be structured a little different? Maybe, yes. Maybe our communities, maybe the world. But when we wake up in the morning, we're kind of there with ourselves and so we have access to ourselves. So, if you do want to change something, well, here you are.

Deb Zahn: Whether you like it or not, there you are. But I think for consultants and particularly consultants who, my favorite, who see consulting as a type of service and being there to make the world a better place, to help people, there's the giving, giving, giving. And if you see self-care as indulgent or pampering, you cross it off your list because it's not the most important thing because you feel driven or your pipeline isn't full of work.

And if you take time to go to a forest and soak up some nature that feels like, "Oh, I'm not working my business. I'm not working my business," without recognizing that you cannot draw from an empty well. And if you are so depleted because you've given everything away, then at some point you're not going to be able to give what you truly want to be able to give. And so it's not selfish. It actually I think goes back to the, "I'm part of the larger world. How do I tend to myself so that I can be part of my life and part of the larger world?"

Dr. Scott Thomas: I think you have two points there. One, which is first of all, you deserve the attention everything else gets. So, you can almost just take it at the level of you're yourself, so you should be caring for yourself. And there should be some, I don't know, kindheartedness to yourself. The same way we do, I would say most people that I know tend to take care of others more than they care for themselves. So, I think it is part of saying, "OK, and I should bring that care to myself."

But then what you said also on a very practical level as a consultant, which is at one level, you got to be kind of continually in training, as it were, like an athlete or a musician or a writer. All three of those do something every day. An athlete, even if it's an easy day, they might stretch and work out with some weights. A writer just might take some notes. A musician might just go over some ideas they've had about music or something.

So, you do have to keep sort of strengthening yourself and filling the well or giving yourself some sort of nourishment as it were if you're going to be a consultant out there. And again, I would put consultants in the realm of artists, athletes, musicians, and those that are out there providing something. So, you got to be in shape to be a consultant. So, there's the kindhearted part, which is take care of yourself. And then the very practical thing, if you're going to be out there and you're going to be competing for business, you got to be in good shape.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. And not feel guilty about it. So, and that's the other thing is, "Oh, I went and I took a break, or I didn't do anything yesterday because I just didn't have it in me and now I feel super guilty about it," as opposed to, and I like how you use the term normalizing because if you normalize self-care, you will know that part of what you have to do is build into your lives those things that will nourish you, replenish you just even just make you feel a little relaxation and joy.

Dr. Scott Thomas: Yeah. Yeah. And again, I would repeat, it's the right thing to do for yourself as a human being. And it's the practical thing to do as a consultant out there working, competing in the world. You got to do it on both sides.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. And I like what you also said in terms of how we have access to ourselves. So, it doesn't mean that we're not engaged in larger things in the world, but. I've had this experience where I realized back before I was a consultant and I had some tough bosses and I was working too much and I was just... and it was because my boss, my boss, my boss, and the work and the demands and dah, dah, dah.

And then when I became a consultant and all of that was gone, particularly when I became an independent consultant, and it didn't change. Now it doesn't mean that those pressures weren't real, but suddenly when those were gone or when I worked at the firm, it was sort of the best possible version of working for someone.

And it still looked like that. I had to stop and reflect and say, "I'm doing something that is making this part of my reality." And you remember all this. I was really despondent about it because I felt like, "Oh, now I'm a bad boss." But at the same time I'm like, "Oh, but I'm the boss, so now I can actually do something about it." Because if it's me, now I got something to work with because I'm accessible to me every day.

Dr. Scott Thomas: Yeah. Wherever you go, there you are.

Deb Zahn: Yeah, no matter what. So, let's talk about, and I know it's going to be different for everyone, but... and I'll answer this too, so I'll talk about what self-care means for me, but what does it look like for you? How do you sort of make it a part of your normal existence?

Dr. Scott Thomas: I need regularity for myself as you know, obviously. I've had a regular meditation practice for decades now, and that's been critical for my self-care. And I think a lot of it is the regularity, the dailiness of it, the touching in, the consistency. It's like a through line or this thread or something. That has been vital for me. I think I just happened to ended up with meditation. I think regular journaling, regular walking.

Goodness, I just think even a daily walk. I think for me, some sort of through line is what I would say because that's what it does is it, for me, it really helps the world not take over, if that makes sense. Which is, I mean, there's, between social media and news and everything, there's so much coming at us and so much it's critical for me, one of the most important things for my sanity, I would say, and definitely in terms of my mental wellness is feeling like no matter what is going on in my life, there is some thread, there is some through line that is always, it's like this vibration that is always consistently alive.

So, that has been, I would say a saving whatever for me. I would have a hard time imagining without it. But and if all of a sudden I, I don't know, I couldn't meditate, even if it was every single day I did a sketch. So, it's funny, this is the first time I've talked about it in terms of the importance of the through line.

Deb Zahn: I like that. And I would say I've had different through lines at different points, but I find myself more recently adjusting self-care depending on the magnitude of what I'm experiencing. So, years and years ago, over a decade ago, I liked a good pedicure the way anybody else did, and that felt like a special time to me. But I can't pedicure my way out of how intense things are feeling right now.

So, I mean, you know for me, it's go to the woods, go to the water. Nature is a big one for me. Exercise. And I'm going to say should, and I don't mean should like shoulding on myself, I mean, should like exercise as you well know, because you remind me of it all the time, is the single most helpful thing for me to do. The physicality of it, it's part of how I'm wired, it's part of how I'm built, and it just helps more than anything else in the whole world.

And so one of the things that I did is I was having a hard time getting back into the regular habit of it, and I needed and need that to be my through line. So, I finally said, "Well, it's only going to change if I change." Nothing I've been doing has been working so I hired, I signed up for an online thing and I have an online coach who sends me reminders every day and checks in with me and has adjust the exercise depending on, so if I injure myself, she'll make adjustments so that I can still do it.

I still have a hard time maintaining the throughput, but that's one of the most helpful things for me. But recently, just in feeling a lot of stress, I have been, talk about the simplicity of self-care, and you know this because you've caught me doing it, I will just bury my face into the fur of a kitty cat. And we have a little kitten right now, little Yorkie who was hit by a car and she's OK, her leg is healing and she's like a bright light. And we have obviously lots of other kitties in the house, but she interacts with us most of the time and she's a delight.

And I literally will put her up to my face and inhale just because there's something so soothing about it. And I thought it was a little bit weird because it is a little bit weird. And then I saw a meme online where it instructed people to do that. I thought, "OK, clearly I'm not the only person in the world who's like, give me comfort kitty cat." But that's when I'm at my most stressed is I just need not just the physical comfort, I need almost because they get to feel joy because of how we treat them and that we rescue them and their lives are so much better, it's almost like I'm absorbing a little bit of that joy. And to me, that's self-care.

Dr. Scott Thomas: I love that example of self-care because that's what I'd like to also talk about, which is the trouble sometimes when you talk about self-care and then I make a reference to meditation or there's exercise, but I know people who read a lot of fiction, and that's their self-care because it helps them step out of the world they're living in and they want a little break. And it's almost like this fantasy fiction worlds are their through line to something else.

I know people use music, especially when many of us were younger. And you have the headphones on and you're just listening to music. But that again, is your touchstone as it were. So, I think one thing really important with self-care is just to really blow open the idea of what it should look like. Again, like you said, it can turn into another should, like the danger of a to-do, "I should be meditating."

Well, if that's the approach, I mean, to me, I actually happen to love meditating. If I didn't love it, I would stop doing it because that's kind of counter to the whole idea of self-care. So, I think the pleasure component of self-care is critical. If anything, you could almost say that's one of the central things. Even when taking a shower sometimes you're, "OK, I got to get clean." But sometimes it's like, "Oh, that really feels good."

That's the pleasure component of, like you said, stuffing your face in the fur of a kitty cat. Because when you've described it to me, you enjoy it. When you listen to music, your heart starts to sing a little. So, I do want to bring that, move it out of another to-do into, is your self-care bringing you joy? Is your self-care, I mean, the term has to be nourishment. And that's why I sit, that's why I'm meditate.

When I meditate I feel like I've been nourishing myself, not that I've been adjusting myself or fixing, "OK, now I'm going to be cognitively clear." I could care less about that. What I want to be is I want to feel the breadth of life is why I meditate, is to inhale more fully and feel the joy of life. So, I think I'm happy we've talked around this for a bit, for me to realize what I think is important with the self-care, the care part, the care. Is there a supportive? Is the heart being kind to itself? So, yeah, joy and pleasure.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. And then I find critical to avoid things that diminish that pleasure. So, there might be a hook to it, like social media. So, you obviously consume some social media, but you're one of the few people I know that has zero social media accounts, which makes you one of the smartest people I know because I got back on Instagram only because that's where I have my cat rescue nonprofits on Instagram.

And I find myself scrolling through the videos and I start doing it because it feels like, "Oh, that's a cute little video of something really fun, a nice interaction between people," or there's a cute goat that's playing with a donkey or whatever. It doesn't matter. But then the scrolling and the scrolling and the scrolling, and it's not even doom scrolling, which I also sometimes do, but it's the just hook into it. And it's exhausting me, but I keep doing it.

And it's not the pleasurable things because what would be more pleasurable is if I know when I eat healthy, when I eat fruits and vegetables, I feel better. Part of my self-care is the self-care of my microbiome. And if I'm eating non-processed food, fruits and vegetables, I feel better. If I'm not eating sugar, I feel better. And I love cooking. If I'm spending all of this time just sort of scrolling through social media, just I think mindlessly, but it's not really mindless.

Instead of get up and chop some vegetables, and then you're going to consume things that are going to make you feel better. And it's the same amount of time. So, it's not that I might say, "Oh, I just don't have time," because you kind of went through the things that you have to ask yourself. And it's not that I don't have time, it's that I'm filling that time with something that I think is feeding me and bringing me joy and it's actually really not.

Dr. Scott Thomas: Yeah. No, the scrolling, yeah, I mean, I just want to pick up on that because there are tons of studies now that show that it's the searching is so addictive, the flipping. It's actually not that you then get what you were looking for, but it's the anticipation. I forget how it's all hooked up, anticipation and dopamine and all that, but the deal with scrolling is that it keeps this anticipatory excitement going, and that's why we get hooked in. We think it's because, oh, then we found it, and then we found it. Actually, it's not it. It's basically the excitement of anticipatory reward. Just made that up. I don't know if that's true, but yeah.

Deb Zahn: I like it. And you've actually said something when I've done it, and sometimes my answer, which gets back to your resentment part is, "I'm a grown ass woman. I feel like doing it." And it's not doing me any favors. It doesn't mean that I never ever, ever do it, but there are things that I could replace it with that bring me far more pleasure and joy, and they feed me in a way that would actually be self-care instead of getting into someone's algorithm that's trying to hook me.

Dr. Scott Thomas: Yeah. But you're also saying the right thing, which is if you're not going to do that and you're going to substitute it with something else, it still has to give you pleasure and joy. I mean, again, it doesn't work to try and do something that brings us pleasure, but we think we shouldn't be doing it and try and substitute it with something we should properly be doing. You got to find out another quick pleasure that will be a substitute and it's healthy. Yeah.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. That sounds like when you go back to the days you were doing smoking cessation and what are you going to replace cigarettes with and it's not nothing.

Dr. Scott Thomas: Yeah. It's got to be something that obviously you're not going to inhale and kill you, but you got to substitute something that gives you something. Again, you're after something or else we wouldn't be doing it. We're looking for something. So, make sure you can give yourself that something that hopefully doesn't cause pain or damage.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. So, I love this. Thank you. I know we're doing this on a day off for both of us. So, Scott, I know this isn't what you had on your pleasure joy list necessarily, but I appreciate it because you've been talking about self-care because you've been training people on it. And when I think about all the people who are asking for it from every imaginable walk of life, it speaks to I think, a crying need that people have, which is why I know consultants have it, because I hear about it in my membership. I hear about it when I talk to other consultants. I feel it. And so I appreciate you coming on and talking about it.

Dr. Scott Thomas: Yeah. Well, you're welcome. And it's funny, talking about it is helpful for me too because it gets me back to think of what is important with what we've been talking about. And I think that taking the time to sit back and think of one's relationship to how you think about self-care and how you approach self-care, how you personally feel about self-care, I think that is the door to, if you're going to be able to increase maybe your self-care or talk to others about it.

It's funny because that's exactly what we're oftentimes missing. We're moving so quickly, we're scrolling, we're doing this, we're getting that done. That good old-fashioned contemplation of sitting in a chair taking the time and say, "I'm just going to chill for a while and kind of let this idea stew and think about it. Maybe I'll take a couple notes over here and stuff." But finding the time to figure out what is your relationship to self-care and how are you approaching it.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. And if you have any sort of baggage that's not carry-on luggage related to it.

Dr. Scott Thomas: Yes. No, exactly that. Yeah.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. Because I remember someone in my membership who worked really, really hard and was doing very well and posted, they felt guilty about taking a vacation. People were chiming in going, "Yeah, I still feel weird when I do it. Yeah, I still work sometimes when I do it." And that is the one thing that I learned long ago. I believe I was in Paris when someone called me from work and I'm like, "You better produce a corpse or that level of magnitude for the fact that you just bugged me in Paris."

And of course it was nothing, but it was all this feeling of, "You have to take care." And actually, my big one was when I first started consulting, I worked for someone who used to run this huge government program in a big state. And I was eager to impress because I was a new consultant, I was on his team. And I was going on vacation, and I felt guilty about it because what are they going to do without me?

And I remember he said to me, "Deb, you got to get over yourself." He said, "You're doing a great job, but you're really not that important." And he told me a story of how he was so convinced that he was so essential to anything working at his agency that he worked himself until he had a heart attack. And he wasn't taking care of himself. There was no exercise, there was no health eating, there was nothing, lack of sleep, all this stuff. And he ended up having a heart attack, and then he was forced to take care of himself because that's the only way he was going to survive. It got that bad. And he was convinced everything would go down the tubes. And he said, "Guess what? It didn't." And he said, "And I was running a $13 billion agency, you'll be fine if you go on vacation."

And it struck me, and he's right. He's like, "I better not hear from you." And he didn't hear from me, and everything was fine. And I think when you're your own businessperson and so much does depend on you, it's hard to imagine self-care is anything but a luxury as opposed to something that's actually essential to your business.

So, I love what you're saying, and I want to end on this of you got to pay attention to how you think and feel when you think of self-care. And if guilt comes up, if any sort of negative feeling, self-doubt, "I'll never be successful if I don't push all the time," whatever it is that you're caring related to it, then that's this type of stuff to also pay attention to because those are going to be barriers to you caring for the self.

Dr. Scott Thomas: Absolutely. Yep.

Deb Zahn: Love it. Well, again, Scott, thank you for doing this on a day off. You're awesome.

Dr. Scott Thomas: Oh, sure.

Deb Zahn: And you've already meditated, so I know it's fine. I'm going to go stick my face in a kitten again, so.

Dr. Scott Thomas: That sounds good.

Deb Zahn: All right.

Dr. Scott Thomas: That sounds joyful.

Deb Zahn: It is joyful, especially a little scrunchie kitten. Oh my goodness. All right. Thank you, Scott.

Dr. Scott Thomas: You're welcome.

Deb Zahn: Thanks so much for listening to this episode of the Craft of Consulting Podcast. I want to ask you to do actually three things. If you enjoyed this episode or if you've enjoyed any of my other ones, hit subscribe. I got a lot of other great guests that are coming up and a lot of other great content, and I don't want you to miss anything.

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