The Art of Compassionate Self Care

The art of compassionate self care

Contribution by Lanie Smith, MPS, ATR

My hand grabs the brush, dips the wet bristles into the fresh white paint and delights as the color is smudged across a sea of deep pthalo blue bleeding into aquamarine. This practice is what fuels my love for Abstract Expressionism. It’s the raw sensory satisfaction, so expressive that it doesn’t need shape or clear form to communicate. Color and texture capture the essence.

As an art therapist I see the world, my clients, and their healing through an artist’s lens and use art with the creative process to help clients reconnect with parts of themselves previously disowned, forgotten, or undiscovered.

Just the basic element of color can help me connect to my clients and their creative choices. When they pass me a sheet of watercolor paper, so weighted by materials, I can physically feel the load they have been carrying. I can see how trapped they might feel when they bind found objects. Even when words are too tangled to share, the materials speak.

I know this, not just from my training on the therapeutic use of art media and the neuroscience to support it, but because I discovered the value of artmaking when life was overwhelming for me. Before learning anything about Art Therapy, I sought safety through paint and large installations that could contain my vast emotion.  

Looking back, I see how much more comfortable it  was to paint maniacally than it was to experience the feelings in my body. I was adept at distracting myself from the discomfort of grief and pain.  

It took a physical diagnosis to fully tune me into the wisdom of my body. Because I was struggling with mounting fatigue, I had to quit making art at the rapid pace I once celebrated. Eventually, I  took a complete sabbatical from artmaking while learning to manage my health.  I granted myself permission to rest and be an art therapist who was NOT always making art.

Whoa...fraud alert...who the eff does that?! What decent art therapist stops making art?!’  

I was terrified someone would figure out I was a complete impostor or a fake wannabe artist turned art therapist. Even scarier: would I start to feel the pain that my art helped me manage?

Truth is, I did feel the pain when I stopped creating with such blind fervor. I still do sometimes. Fortunately, getting still allows me to heal more deeply than frantic painting ever did.  

Now, I let myself admit fear and feel loss, disappointment, rejection, or abandonment that used to terrify me. I am focused on inviting healing through gentle self compassion to comfort the child within and respect the limitations of my body.  

The rewards have been huge as I’ve learned to pay attention to my body  - including my heart. This is true self care.

A shift in my art practice: no more obligatory anything

Improving self care means doing what feels good, but it’s more than getting a massage or taking a vacation to manage stress. It’s also about looking at the source of the stress and evaluating ways to eradicate unnecessary stressors while increasing activities that make your heart dance.  Self care is an act of compassion that permits you to let go of obligatory tasks and commitments in order to follow your desire.  

When you have satisfied your own needs and desires you can give out of love rather than obligation. In my case, I have quit making art for anyone other than myself. Even if I am making hand painted cards for loved ones, I’m doing it is because I want and love to paint.  

After years of practice I am able to let go of the need to impress others. When I am creating art or moving through other aspects of life I grant myself permission to enjoy the process without concern for outcome.  This is the very invitation I offer my clients before every group, on every consultation call, and in each intake session. Now that I offer myself the same compassion as I extend my clients, I find myself less and less interested in collecting traditional art materials, creating a final product, or archiving its existence through photography and social media to prove I made something or to show others that I am still creative.

A shift in my daily practice: slow down

There are some days that are slow and quiet. Those days feel like a slice of heaven to my highly sensitive nervous system. Others are loud and busy with incoming calls, messages, and requests for my attention. It can feel like too much if I try to keep up, so I move slowly… slower than I have ever moved before. Literally, the more hectic things get, the slower I move.

One. Breath. At. A. Time.  And not short or shallow breaths but deep, wide, expansive breaths that create an almost trance-like state that enable you to observe automatic thoughts and feelings. Such mindfulness is instrumental in tuning into the present, tuning out unhelpful messages (both my inner judge and any external critics), and tuning up my ability to discover joy.  

I grant myself and my clients permission to do less. This means taking time to explore without pressure to achieve anything. Ironically, we often have the most creative ideas during this time because play is the antithesis of fear which cuts off the flow of imagination and problem-solving.

A shift in my private practice: connect with nature

For months after the autoimmune diagnosis that would change the way I approached all aspects of my life, all I wanted to do was stare at trees. The tears would flow as I allowed myself to just sit. Over time I discovered the tears wouldn’t last forever and I found joy on the other side of my sadness.


More and more since I began this journey of living with chronic illness I have found that listening to the heart and following the desire to do what feels good often leads me and my clients outdoors more. Nature is healing and allows us to connect to our own natural selves free of our mind’s propensity for worry.

Nature has become my co-therapist too. I’ve moved my office into the mountains to help my clients - and myself - take advantage of the beautiful desert landscapes. It has also been necessary to change my business model to continually ensure I have the downtime I need to rest, read, write, play, and heal.  

Playing outdoors with natural media is rather simple. It doesn’t require any special knowledge of materials, but it allows me to feel like a child who is safe enough to explore. I can arrange flowers, rocks, or leaves between clients. I can take clients to do the same. We can stop in the mountains on a hike and form a cairn of stones. This has reinforced the practice of impermanence, non-attachment, and love since we can leave ephemeral works of art in their natural setting as a gift for others to enjoy as they pass.

Simplifying life and keeping it that way.

Chronic illness has become my biggest teacher with a lesson in simplifying my life. I’ve learned that the lower my stress load, the better I feel. The more white space I create; the more joy I experience by following my desire. I can be spontaneous and take inspired action. I aim to follow my heart instead of the fear in my gut.

Keeping things simple requires a commitment to simplicity as self-care. I say no to others more often now, so that I can say yes to myself. Saying no to opportunities that, while attractive and flattering, just don’t fuel me has led to a greater sense of peace and calm. I’ve learned to follow my passion by following what gives me energy rather than drains it. You can do the same. The more skilled you become at tuning in, the easier tuning out and tuning up can become.  

I’m still working toward remission, practicing greater self-­care, and being more compassionate with myself and others. I am slowly accepting my limitations and following my bliss.  

Ultimately, health and well-being stem from applying less pressure and more love. I gently strive to replace harsh, critical judgment of myself with gentle acceptance of what my heart is longing for. My passion is to guide others to do the same.

How do you apply less pressure and more love?

Whatever is calling to you... listen and respond. Use your desires as a compass that guides you toward joy and bliss.  

Get quiet and respect the whispers of your heart. I call this practice of trusting your body and your desires “tuning in, tuning out, and tuning up.”  It’s a process of stretching your intuitive muscles in order to find what makes you healthy and whole.  There are so many rewards inherent in this practice, but I must warn you that it also requires courage to step away from what you think you ‘should’ be doing and instead move toward what you actually want to do.

So, what do you long for and what could use more attention from you? How are you listening to your body? Are you tuning in regularly? What about tuning out unhelpful material and tuning up activities that bring you joy and bliss?

I'd love to hear where you are at in this journey, where you succeed, and where you might find yourself struggling a bit or in need of some help. Remember, practice makes progress, so please leave a comment and let us know how your practice of tuning in, out, and up is going!

From the editors: Did Lanie’s perspective on the art of self compassion shift the way you look at tuning in, tuning out and tuning up? If it resonated with you, please share this post with your family, friends, and community.

PLAY & CONNECTION | Episode 45 of The Couples Expert Podcast


Last week I had the pleasure of being interviewed (again) by Stuart Fensterheim, LCSW on The Couples Expert Podcast. We had a great conversation about how play is essential for connection and growth.

Play has a purpose. It helps us sustain healthy relationships. As I mentioned in the recent what is play post, play is a state of mind.  

In this episode Stuart and I talk about what play means and the purpose it holds, how playfulness can help you reconnect with your partner, how you can use play and a playful mindset to reset your relationship and how play can help you repair hurts and avoid common relationship pitfalls.

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I'd love to hear your feedback!

Now that you’re inspired to play, make a date for it. Join my Valentine’s Day mid-day couples retreat in Accord, New York. Or sign up for the early interest list for the {Re}Spark e-course to help parenting couples rediscover their playful spark (I’ll be releasing it soon).


What is Play?

An 8-part blog series, helping parent couples reconnect.

A note on the Reconnecting Parent Couples Series: These eight posts present  perspectives and advice from respected colleagues and experts from across the world. I’ll also weave in my personal and professional discoveries and introduce you to aspects of my evolving relationship practice: Connectfulness.   


When it is incorporated into your daily rhythm, play can fundamentally shift everything about how you and the people you love relate to one another...I find that’s especially important for parenting couples to keep in mind.

So what gives? Why does the word and concept of play totally stress people out? Perhaps you are unsure about what play looks like.

“Play's a little like pornography in that you know it when you see it.” Jill Vialet, the CEO of Playworks

Well, duh!  But that doesn’t exactly help you start adding more play into the connections that fuel your daily life, does it?

So, what is play?

Play is a state of mind rather than an activity.

When at play you’re in a state of enjoyment. Your sense of  self-consciousness and sense of time are both suspended. Whatever you are engaged in, you want to do it again and again. Though you may feel  like it’s  purposeless activity, something important and healing is happening…

Play can be hard to define. It can include  so much. Humor, flirtation, games, roughhousing, storytelling, fantasizing, collecting, movement, exploring, competing, directing, creating.

Play looks like different things to different people, but here is what we know:

Play is a natural and biologically driven social exploration. It helps you learn about, and experience your world and your relationships by encouraging discovery.and feeding curiosity.

Play is inhibited and shuts down when you don’t feel safe (In my practice, when my clients can’t or aren’t playing in  their relationships I want to know more about what doesn’t feel safe. And we slowly begin our exploration there).

Play allows you to practice essential life and relational skills. It is full of triumphs and failures and everything in between.

Play is magical, integrative, and healing. It allows you to process, digest, and gain understanding about your life and your relationships. 

And perhaps most importantly, play happens in your mind. In fact, recent findings in neuroscience are showing that nothing lights up our brains like play does.

Why do we need to play?

We adult humans keep forgetting about the purpose of play, or we simply don’t value play. I get that, it’s so easy to do. When you are in the flow of play, it feels totally purposeless. And part of being a grown up is to have a clear sense of purpose, right?

We push children of all ages to play less & sit more. We are placing value on decoding and recall rather than comprehension and collaboration. Children are missing out on the experiential learning that they can only absorb through the process of play.

But then, it’s no wonder that we’ve taken the play out of children’s education - adults have eliminated play from their busy lives. they don’t know how to model or pass on something as purposeless as “just playing.”

We often think that as adults we shouldn't play, that we should stay serious and focused all of the time and that couldn't be farther from the truth. When couples are really stuck in the thick of stress, I suggest bringing in some kind of play. It can allow partners to connect in a light hearted way. It can also be a great way to reminisce and re-live the earlier days of the relationship when things were less stressful and more fun. Dr. Lily A. Zehner

We are designed to play throughout our whole lifetime

Play is very much a pre-programed social mammalian skill. Watch a pack of puppies, or a litter of kittens. How do they interact with one another and learn appropriate social behaviors?

They play!

They wrestle with one another, they push and pull on boundaries and they either get redirected by one another or mamma when they’ve gone too far or they tire out in a happy exhausted pile, content with one another.

And it’s not different for us humans. We learn how to connect in play.

Your sense of safety and trust in relationship are established through play signals such as eye-contact, facial expression, voice tone, posture, gesturing, timing and intensity of response.

In play, it's safe to fail, to fall get up and try again.  Play makes it easier to adapt and stay connected.  

If you want to keep growing, you must keep playing

Stuart Brown, MD author of Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul and the founder of the National Institute for Play says that when we stop playing, “our behaviour becomes fixed. We are not interested in new and different things. We find fewer opportunities to take pleasure in the world around us.

If you want to do more than merely survive in your relationships, you need to play. Couples who thrive know how to play.

Play reminds us not to take life too seriously. Couples often get stuck on recycling the "bad stuff" in their relationships and stop making new, fun memories. An analogy I like to use is that people have two rooms where they keep their memories of their relationships. One room has all the "good" memories and the other room has all the "bad" ones. How we feel about our relationship is how much time we spend in each room. By playing together couples spend more time in the "good" room and also develop new, happy memories. Mark Vaughan MAMFT, AMFT

When you start to make play your mindset — the attitude you use to approach life situations — you get to practice how you perceive and respond to other's emotional states in a safe, no pressure way.

Play is the glue that connects people to one another. In my next post we’ll dive deeper into how you can rediscover play if you’ve lost it, stay tuned!

>> Part 6 | Play Is Relationship Glue <<




slow the f*ck down

// art print by Lizzy Spohr Russinko at, click to visit Etsy print shop //

// art print by Lizzy Spohr Russinko at, click to visit Etsy print shop //

It was a Thursday morning. I was in my sweaty yoga clothes, finishing up some business at my bank and heading home to walk the dog and get into my work.

It was one of those days —I was holding back tears. Emotion was welling up inside, but I was pushing through because so often that’s just what you do — or what I do. Chug through.

As I reflect now, I had been chugging for a bit too long. Not slowing down to listen within and feel all the feelings. Just chugging.

I teach my clients to pause and reflect and sit with their feelings — and yet here I was (again I’m seeing this only in retrospect) chugging through my feelings and keeping a tad too busy. The “too busy” allowed  me to avoid tuning in.

I had lots of big stuff bubbling up inside, but rather than giving all my feelings their space, I was stuck in a loop of pushing those feelings aside.



As I was unlocking my car door, the universe conspired to help me become aware - painfully aware - of my feelings.

There was a bumblebee. It stung me.

It. Stung. My. Right. Middle. Finger.

Thank you.

No, really. I needed that. I needed the reminder that it’s OK to get angry as all hell and show it - sometimes. As my middle finger swelled into a unbendable extended position, this was my cue to let go and laugh.  Essentially, I was forced to give the world a throbbing F*ck You.

It stung. But, man, it felt good too!

Instead of tying a string around my finger to remember to slow down and take care of what matters, the universe took a much more direct route. 

Funny thing about pain. Sometimes experiencing pain —I’m talking really allowing ourselves to feel it rather than run from it, or push it aside, or chug through— can feel right.

Feeling the pain can inspire the movement you need to take to get unstuck.

It also reminded me to appreciate the irony and humor that lurks beneath all the stress and madness of typical modern life. The forced ‘F*ck You’ felt kinda grand —like my life needed a big old “screw that” reality check so I could check back in and meet my real priorities.

This rebellious middle finger liberated me to just be honest about the stuff I needed to address. I needed to release things or hold more space for them — no more chugging and ignoring and holding back tears.

The pain helped me to tune back into me. I was running on empty. I needed to slow down and refocus.

Sometimes the universe conspires to help you feel. When it does, let it.

All those feelings, as uncomfortable as they may be, are really steps towards healing. All that feeling, that's your humanity.

This is Connectfulness. Listening to the universe and responding by slowing down. Slowing down and letting yourself simply feel.

I’m taking my own advice and I’m heeding the message and I’m slowing the f*ck down!

When you need to slow the f*ck down... How do you know? And what do you do? Post below and share the love by sharing this post.