Times are tough for therapists. Providing mental healthcare these days is challenging. Therapists find themselves in the midst of many perfect storms. Global changes, social unrest, tremendous upheaval, and trauma in the lives of their clients can mirror the struggles in their own lives, potentially leading to burnout.
Being a therapist is a beautiful, noble, and worthwhile undertaking. It is our life’s work. Yet often it is a slog. Clients may report a bit of progress, but then things fall apart. Our efforts to get through to them come up short. We can become lost and hopeless ourselves, watching people we have grown to care about continue to suffer and struggle.
In these situations, compassion fatigue and burnout can become a real risk. When we are worn down and exhausted, it can be difficult to give to our clients. The work that once inspired us can become draining to the point that it impacts our own wellbeing. When we feel burnt out, we need to find inspiration and reconnect to what it means to be a therapist.
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Inspiration for the Weary Therapist: 4 Steps to Avoid Burnout
Here are 4 accessible steps for therapists to avoid burnout and compassion fatigue during challenging times:
1. Practice Real Self-Care
Self-care is vital for therapists. We learn from very early on in our training that we need to take care of ourselves to care for others. Yet what does self-care look like when you are at a level of weariness and burnout?
When we are in a lot of pain, our output to input ratio changes. If we are guilty of giving too much to our clients and not receiving enough from our lives, then we need to change the way we think about healing so that we do not give more than we take in. We must be okay with simply being present with our clients. We do not need to move mountains or do the work for them. As a therapist, you have to care for yourself too. We must strive for a healthy work-life balance to feel whole and avoid burnout.
Practicing self-care and attention, even in session, can help avoid burnout. Have a coffee in session. Sip it slowly. Take in the light that’s streaming through the window. Our clients need us to be present and alive when we’re meeting with them.
2. Practice Presence
What do you need to be present in session even in the face of others’ pain? Will always having food or tea with you help? Do you need different cushions on your chair? How about comfy clothes? A fan in the heat of summer? You may need a whole little apothecary on the table next to you to symbolize that you are present and caring for yourself while you care for your client.
Contrary to what we may have been taught, we do not need to hide our pain from our clients. We can let them know what we are going through. Clients benefit from having a full human being with them who is giving, receiving, experiencing joys, struggling, and even suffering themselves. Giving yourself permission to be a full person that is comfortable in the therapy room allows you to be truly present.
We need not clear everything out of our mind, be totally empty, and have no distractions in order to be present. I have seen new therapists who won’t remove their gaze from the client in session. That is too rigid. Instead, to avoid burnout, it helps to stay relaxed and open. We don’t need to override being human to be present in session.
3. Receive Care
Giving and receiving are connected. To effectively give to our clients and avoid burnout, we need to be adept at receiving. Receiving a breath, receiving a hug, receiving food, receiving sunlight, receiving sleep, and receiving company with people are all simple ways of taking in life so that we have more to give. Excessive giving can be a defense against receiving, as it can sometimes feel vulnerable to receive. To be impactful at giving to our clients, and to understand the control and power we have as therapists, we need to work on our ability to receive, and remove any barriers to taking in life.
For instance, how do you receive gifts from clients when they give you a present to express their gratitude? We are supposed to give to our clients, but the tables turn when they give to us. It is important for us to be open in those moments and receive the gratitude being offered. Instead of saying, “Oh, thank you very much,” and then putting the gift away, we might instead make a show of it, and ceremonially receive what they bring. Being fed by them in some way might help us be even more effective at feeding them overall and help to avoid burnout.
4. Embrace Your Humanity
Therapists are human too. When we are in pain, we need to be able to embrace our humanity and care for ourselves. To be effective at managing our clients’ pain, we must respond to our own suffering with warmth and self-compassion. Otherwise, we cannot practice real, deep compassion for others. When you give others a break for being a certain way, but won’t let yourself be that same way, it is not real compassion. It is unnecessarily beating yourself up, thinking that you need to be strong to help.
It is human to be weak. I have been surprised when I start hinting to clients that I don’t have it all together, they respond more effectively to treatment. When we are vulnerable with clients, we are sharing with them what it is to be human – that we are not always doing well. We acknowledge that the human experience is varied, that we are not ideal, but instead very human.
To avoid burnout, may the person you are be the same as the therapist that you are. May who you are in the therapy room be the same as who you are outside the office. You will feel way more at ease. Let your clients see you. They want to be seen and they want to be able to see you. Remember that your ability to see others only goes as far as your ability to be seen.
About the Author: David Klow, founder and owner of Skylight Counseling Center and Skylight Healing Center, is a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT). He is the author of the new book, Inspiration for the Weary Therapist: A Practical Clinical Companion, from Routledge Press.