How to Deal with Therapist Burnout
“Burnout is what happens when you try to avoid being human for too long.”
~ Michael Gungar
Exhaustion. Bone deep, cannot move, foggy brain exhaustion. Ever have that feeling when your alarm goes off? If you haven’t, email me, I would love to know your secret! Exhaustion is normal for most of us who live crazy busy lives, even in the middle of a pandemic. However, when you start to find creative ways to sleep in until the very last minute, cancel appointments and isolate for non-pandemic reasons, exhaustion becomes BURNOUT. Our tendency to focus exclusively on the well-being of our clients and the fact that we spend long hours in this state of mind accounts for the high rates of stress, anxiety, substance abuse, depression, and (yes, even) suicide among our peers. Burnout can add to the feeling of isolation since as helping professionals, we want all to think that we follow our own guidance.
Therapist burnout? Yep, been there, done that, and even bought a super cool t-shirt.
So, let’s talk about what that means for you as a therapist, how to get through it. and most importantly find hope for life after burnout. There are many elements that have the potential to fuel our Crispy Quotient (CQ for short) which in Melissa language means elements that lead to a potential burnout scenario.
First, we work with people who are in pain, feel suicidal, are grieving over the loss of loved ones, or those severely traumatized. This has the potential to take a heavy toll on us. And, without clear boundaries, therapists can become a sponge for the emotions of clients – eventually unable to squeeze out the “emotional sponge” in a healthy way. It can become vicarious trauma when cumulative exposure is not addressed or managed. Through that process, an empathetic response could negatively affect a therapist which will increase their CQ.
Another aspect that will impact your CQ as a helping professional is worry. What do you worry about in your practice? I can tell you that I worry about maintaining boundaries at times. Also, I worry about some of my clients who have suicidal ideation that I am missing something – even if they contract for safety. I’m worried about clients who have anger issues that they may act out without warning. Sometimes, I worry someone will want to sue me for malpractice. Lastly, I worry I will offend someone from a cultural standpoint.
Cumulative worry can negatively affect your life and professional boundaries as a therapist
If I felt all of those worries all at once, I would be a hot mess! Are they daily concerns? Not anymore. Does each of them have an impact on me periodically? Absolutely. It all depends on the day, my client mix, and the sleep I had the night before. It is when a therapist is unable to be self-aware when the “worry” kicks in that it adds to your CQ. Periodic concern for clients is natural – we all entered this field to help others. But, when they are in a rough place it can be tricky to maintain professional boundaries.
Immediate gratification is hard to come when you’re a clinician.
My brother is in marketing. He is incredible at what he does (proud little sister moment here…). He is well respected in his field and can measure results directly with marketing campaign data. As therapists, it is very rare to see immediate results that are concrete and measurable. Outcomes can be measured through scaling, testing, and self-report. But, it takes time. Even when therapy is effective in relieving painful symptoms and termination is successful, patients leave, and with them goes the knowledge of the long-term effect the work has had on their lives. It can be challenging for therapists to realize the impact they are having because change can be so slow.
I have met many therapists who feel that they are in the “wrong field” or have not “found their purpose” because they were not seeing a change in the clients they are working with. Questioning our value and worth as clinicians based upon clinical response can transition outside of the clinical space to our personal lives. When our bubble is filled with questions and concerns about what value we offer, our CQ increases rapidly.
As an aside, I have discovered that in my free time I enjoy activities or hobbies that have a beginning, middle, and an end. Since my day job tends to be ‘grey’, my free time is filled with more clear-cut activities that help me feel relaxed. Still looking for new hobbies, but I do know that it will have to show clear progress along the way!
How to be authentic and maintain clinical boundaries
The final aspect I want to touch on in this blog is your therapist identity. When do you take off the therapist hat to just be you? Clients disclose the most intimate aspects of their lives to their therapists, the therapist must share only what is appropriate and beneficial to the patients. It may also lead therapists to transfer the mode of one-way intimacy to friends and family outside of the therapy office. Taking off the therapist mode to be authentic, vulnerable, and completely real with someone is a challenge when all day long every day we focus on others instead of ourselves.
When I am not a therapist, I am a professor. Those times when I am not a professor, I am a momma to an adult child. When I am not a momma to my child, I am a “person” to my two fur babies. And, when I am not with my fur babies, I am a friend, a sister, an aunt, a daughter and the list goes on and on. Finding the space to just be Melissa has been challenging. It feels selfish. But, at the end of the day, if I do not create that time to be me (aka self-care) then I cannot be that person for anyone. Not even my fur babies.
Therapist burnout is a part of our profession that needs to be identified, discussed without shame, and normalized.
Therapist Burnout is Preventable
Here are some simple tips to prevent therapist burnout. Have your own identity as a person outside of relationships, job titles, or expectations. You’re not just a therapist there to help others. You are a full person, with your own needs and desires. Provide your clients with good care, but do not make them the (only) center of your life. Find your passion for you. Have many sides of your identity so that you do not feel that you are just “one thing.” We are all multifaceted and should embrace each of those areas with gratitude.
Gratitude can give therapists also finding the space to consistently practice self-care activities. This can include therapy, exercise, proper sleep, and balanced nutrition. Enjoy your life in a way that is sustainable. Everyone needs time to be a couch potato and check out – especially those in the helping professions.
Take time to remember who you are and meet your own needs. Connect with others who respect your authentic self and not just seek friendship for ‘free therapy’. Time alone can be very cathartic and energizing. But, too much time alone can be isolating and reinforcing that your main identity is only to be a therapist. Even an introvert who talks all day long needs connection with others. Yes, even if you feel spent. We were created for connection and thrive when we are with our people. Who are your people? Maybe it is time to reach out and let them know what is going on in your world – the good, the bad, and the ugly. Your people are there for a reason. They have earned that right in your life. And to my people reading this – yes, I am taking my own advice and look forward to chatting with each of you soon.
Peer Support Can Prevent Therapist Burnout
Throughout my career, I consult within my own agency or practice, peer support with an amazing circle of clinical friends, and a few collaborative groups to maintain my balance as a clinician. Ongoing peer support and consultation can be very helpful in preventing burnout. I would like to clarify one aspect of peer support that has become an issue throughout this pandemic: virtual peer support. Don’t get me wrong, I think virtual support is an amazing gem in the past six months. After all, my entire business is virtual! But, having your ‘people’ is just as important in the virtual realm as it is in the physical realm.
My teenage years were spent lifeguarding at a local waterpark. I learned very quickly in my stellar lifeguarding career that one-person drowning was much easier to rescue than two drowning individuals. One person welcomes the rescue and is able to respond to direction. Two individuals tend to pull each other down and if not careful, the lifeguard becomes part of the problem in that scenario instead of the solution.
Your people should be people who accept you for who you are at the core, empower you, encourage you, and hold you accountable for the goals that you have set. I am a firm believer that you should always have peers that are ahead of you to mentor you, behind you so you can mentor them, with a few on the same level. Too many therapists in a burned-out space can fuel each other in a positive way, but it can also be negative if not kept in check.
The toll of the pandemic on therapist burnout
Our profession has always been challenging, but the past six months have taken our career to another level of stress. I am seeing more burnout in the clinicians I work with, but I am also seeing a level of shame with clinicians that I have not seen in my career. Having a level of burnout makes you human. Especially, over the last six months. It does not mean you cannot practice; it does not mean you need to take a year off and it does not mean you need to change careers. There are cases that a clinician does need to ethically step away to get the treatment they need to practice in a professional manner. That is the exception, not the norm.
Burnout can be managed while you continue to do what you do best. Therapy for Therapists™ can help.
Therapy means you are human, not broken. If we, as therapists, cannot embrace that for ourselves how can we normalize it for those we work with?
If you have been blessed with a not perfect but very normal life, I could not be happier for you and grateful for your experience. Not everyone NEEDS therapy. But, with all the emotional baggage we are holding for clients, and the till of the pandemic, life can get messy. That’s where my program Therapy for Therapists™ can help. I offer support when you’re feeling burned out and your crispy quotient is too high. Remember, to practice what you preach: therapy is normal, healthy, and very empowering.
Perhaps it is time to stop giving the “you are not broken” speech and start to take care of you before your crispy quotient increases.
You got this – I am here to help if you need me. We can be rockstars together.
Fight Therapist Burnout and Begin Therapy for Therapists:
Let me help you decrease your crispy quotient and fight therapist burnout. I provide online therapy in Ohio, Tennessee, Florida, California, and Pennsylvania. I’m proud to offer online therapy for helping professionals, online therapy for busy professionals, and Therapy for Therapists™. I specialize in treating imposter syndrome, burnout, and anxiety using The Daring Way™ and offer online workshops to clients who want to overcome shame. Contact me today and let’s be rockstar clinicians together!