Why We Become Therapists and How to Remain One: Tips for Overcoming Burnout and Malcontent
I remember the day I knew I would have a career in the helping field: It was a day like any other in first grade. As I stood in line with all my classmates, our janitor, Mr. Johnson, walked past. His familiar gimp accompanied him, as it always did, with one leg lagging behind him while the opposite arm swayed oddly.
To my dismay, the entire class snickered and called out insults, which—right or wrong—was the popular response by those around me. However, being the empath I am, I just sank inside. A pit the size of a kickball grew in my stomach and I just had to do something to ease his pain. Not having the tools then that I have now, I didn’t know what else to do. So I waved, smiled. A simple token of kindness that would foretell my future as a therapist. I knew then that I could not tolerate human suffering and that I had a gift within me to help ease it.
Many of us become therapists, clinicians, psychotherapists, or psychologists because the human condition intrigues us. It makes us feel alive to connect with others in a way that is authentic. We care about the condition of the human soul and want to help alleviate suffering. I, personally, also love the science of the human spirit. What makes us who we really are? I’m not referring to our physiology, but what makes you Sam and me Sue? Why does Sue loathe sappy love stories, but Sam adores Nickolas Sparks novels? What makes some resilient and others falter repeatedly? Much of that answer lies in our feelings and emotions.
Our emotions make us human, while our feelings, serve as the lens in which we view our lives. By this I mean that our feelings are what we experience through 11 different inputs: hearing, taste, sight, smell, heat, cool, pain, pleasure, sense of balance, pressure, motion, and of course we can’t forget the proverbial sixth sense that helps us discern life. Emotions, on the other hand, are said by some to be the main motivator in life. An emotion can be brief and episodic or it can be endured for many years, as in the instance of love (or, unfortunately, fear).
Because our emotions can often be unconscious, this is what often brings people to therapy in the first place. If an emotion that is negative is motivating all the experiences in life, this causes some type of psychopathology for the person experiencing it. Unraveling these feelings and emotions to unleash the psychopathology is what I get to do as a therapist.
However, often times through the many types of good work therapy provides (and feelings of satisfaction it can offer to the therapist), working with emotions can also be downright exhausting. And sometimes, even we can lose our passion for the trade. After tending to others’ (and often neglecting our own needs) for so long, we burn out. We become sour, bitter, stale, bored, or just plain “over it.”
But that doesn’t have to be the end result, and it’s certainly not the end game. Allowing yourself to burn out emotionally not only neglects yourself but it neglects many others of the therapist’s tools and gifts. The following tips and tools have helped me to stay present in mind, which not only allows me to stay happy and healthy but ensures I’m on my game and able to help others in need, for as long as they need me.
Take time for yourself.
All therapists know this, intrinsically, but how often do we actually make it happen? While we all know how necessary this is, let’s admit it, we are empaths at heart. We have a tendency to be codependent. Do we even know what it means to take “me time”? Well if you don’t, you should. And now is as good a time as any to start.
Make a list of 10 things that make you happy (10 things, or more if you can think of them, that do not involve others). For example, apple pie and ice cream make me happy, dancing makes me happy, running makes me happy, I could go on. Whatever it is that makes your heart swell, write it down. Now take a look at that list. When was the last time you actually made time for one of these activities that you enjoy so much? If you’re anything like I was, your mind may be drawing a blank. And that’s sad. As therapists, we push our clients to pursue their own happiness in themselves; why shouldn’t we pursue our own? Make time for you, it’s important. Do at least one of these things on your list once a week. No excuses.
We all know the concept of transference and counter-transference, but do we really make time for self-reflection in our own lives? Our lives change daily, our emotions sway, our feelings overwhelm us, and let’s face it, sometimes we just don’t like clients very much. (No, that doesn’t mean we can’t still help them, if that’s the case.)
Self-reflection is tough. It requires being in a place of total honesty with oneself. A healthy sense of self-confidence is necessary, but so is brutal honesty about your own motivations for helping people. Do you help others because you feel indebted? Do you get self-worth from helping others or do you help others to ignore your own issues? Do you feel incomplete if you aren’t helping others? The list goes on, but my point is if you are in the helping profession for any reason other than unconditional positive self-regard for others and a sincere concern for their well-being that has nothing to do with you and your needs—make no mistake, you will burn out.
That’s not to say I’m shaming anyone who has emotional skeletons they’ve yet to uncover or resolve from continuing to help others. But working through our clients’ burdens becomes immensely more difficult when we’re battling (or avoiding) emotional battles of our own. Self-reflection is a necessary tool to use in practice, but it’s an important habit to adopt for therapists, too.
Keep yourself educated.
Read articles, research new treatment modalities, take a class, open your mind to something other than your go-to therapy tools. Why? You owe it to yourself and to your clients to stay educated and informed about the latest discoveries in the behavioral health field. If you aren’t doing this, there will be a staleness to your sessions. In case you’ve yet to find a favorite magazine or news outlet, PsychCentral, American Psychological Association, The National Institute of Mental Health, and Psychology Today are all great resources to find articles, research, and blogs.
Don’t be afraid to refer a client elsewhere.
No matter what skills you offer, or how much you’ve helped prior clients, there will be always clients who will be better suited with another clinician. This may be obvious to you on day one of a client session or maybe it’s not until later in the process when you see you’ve clearly hit a crossroad with this person. It’s not just OK to refer a client out, it’s part of that process of being honest with yourself—and it’s just another way of helping someone.
If you do refer your client elsewhere, give them at least three options and follow up with them afterwards. This not only shows you truly care but allows you the chance to end things on a positive note. Who knows, maybe you’ll cross paths again in a place that’s more suitable for both of you.
Explore other areas of interest in your own life.
I would say that most empaths are multidimensional individuals. By this I mean that you probably like to take side roads, the scenic route, or maybe you like more than one kind of ice cream, depending on your mood. You get my point, you like to mix it up. If that’s the case, feed your soul with new opportunities, new avenues, and new interests. (The main difference between this and point No. 1? It has to be new.)
There are any number of ways to soothe this itch. Find a new hobby, explore a whole new career you can do part time, or travel to someplace you’ve only seen in your dreams (or a hot spot in your own hometown that you’ve simply never been). You can even explore new areas within your professional life. If that’s what you seek, you might want to explore experiential therapies like animal assisted therapy or art therapy.
Whatever it is you enjoy, make sure you’re always working on something new. It’ll ensure you’re always learning, always evolving. The last thing you want is to become an emotional anorexic that never feeds himself of joy.
Become an expert and strive for excellence.
People come to you with their hearts and souls on a platter. That’s an honor no one should ever take for granted, no matter how long you’ve been practicing. How best to honor clients for their vulnerability? Be great at what you do. Know how to conduct cognitive-behavioral therapy like nobody’s business, if that’s your favored technique. Keep excellent case notes, maintain your integrity, and just be a professional. Period.
Take the time to volunteer.
I know you may think you don’t have the time, but I’m telling you—it’s worth it. Personally, I have found that volunteering always reminds me of why I became a therapist in the first place. When you are doing something for others with no monetary gain, something that really isn’t about you at all but involves you as a small part of a greater whole, you open up other avenues of yourself that you don’t use every day in the therapy office.
Remember, your goal as a clinician is not to “fix.”
Instead, it’s simply (but never so simply) to come alongside your client during a difficult time and share in their pain. Isn’t that what being an empath is all about? Putting pressure on yourself to fix your client only makes your agenda with them tainted. This is about them, not you. Listen. Be comfortable with silence. Don’t give advice but share in their despair. Care about your client. Remember, you are a stepping stone in which the client can propel themselves to a space where they can heal themselves.
Stay in some form of supervision.
You can always gain insight from someone who has previous clinical experience, especially when that experience doesn’t mirror yours. A practicing clinician who has seen 20 borderline clients could save you a lot of suffering. Try not to get caught up in your own pride. Yes, you are an empath, but you aren’t all knowing, nor can you be an expert on every single diagnosis in the DSM. Let’s learn from each other, always. Make a point to seek advice from others in the field when dealing with a diagnosis that you don’t feel competent in treating.
Have a friend who can make you laugh.
Stop taking yourself and your life so seriously. Laughter is the only thing that can get us through some of the horrific things we hear in our office. Sometimes a good laugh at that narcissistic mother who comes in wearing fur and rings on every finger is the best way to maintain your sanity. At least until you can break free from your office and do whatever it is that brings you joy outside of therapy—see how I brought those previous points together? Read: it’s important.
Lastly, enjoy getting to know your clients.
Whether you realize it or not, they have just as much to teach you as you have to teach them. All of them, in some way or another. Embracing others even at their worst keeps you compassionate and humble. Even in the thickest pathology, there are nuggets of gold to be found. But only those who search will ever find them. And only those who believe they’re there will ever look.
Melanie Vann is a Masters level clinician, Equine Therapist, and certified Life Coach. In addition to counseling, she currently works with everythingEHR as a Marketing and HIPAA consultant, and co-host of Mental Health News Radio. Look for more blogs from Melanie at everythingEHR.com. You can learn more about Melanie Here.
Listen to Melanie Vann and Kristin Fitzgerald on Mental Health News Radio for their interview about Equine Assisted Therapy for Behavioral Health here.
Tags: Behavioral / Mental Health Information, behavioral health, clinicians, counseling, countertransference, EAGALA, emotions, empath, equine therapy, feelings, HIPAA, Kristin Sunanta Walker, Kristin Walker, Melanie Vann, Mental Health, Mental Health Is Real, mental health news radio, MHNR, Not Changing the Name, psychology, psychopathology, self reflect, therapist, therapy, transference, What is Mental Health?