In episode 298, I received a question from a listener wanting to apply for a clinical psychology program but is concerned about being able to manage emotional burnout as a therapist. In this post, I dive into my own experiences in the field and offer my thoughts on how you can prevent taking on the weight of the world as a therapist.
Hi Dr.Duff, just wanted to pose a question that you may like to address in a podcast episode!
How does one manage and prevent emotional burnout as a therapist?
I want to apply to clinical psychology programs because I believe this would be such a great profession for me and my interests. My only hesitation is that I am a sensitive person, and I am worried that the weight of people’s problems could make this job hard to enjoy and last in long term.
This is a really good question. I don’t think I’ve done one exactly like this before – I’ve covered some things related to burnout, but this one is obviously close to home. I DO see a lot of people in my field work themselves to a point of burnout. It can absolutely be a tough job and if you aren’t paying attention to this kind of thing, you may wind up in bad shape down the line, so I am really glad to hear that you are considering this right up front.
The answer to this is going to be different from person to person, but it DOES need to be considered. Everyone has a different tolerance for absorbing other’s emotions, so it is important to understand your baseline. The fact that you are a sensitive person is not inherently a bad thing. It does present the challenge of you needing to be more careful with your emotional state, but you also have unique advantages. You are likely more empathetic and understanding. You may have the ability to level with your future clients in a way that other people might not. These are great things. But yes, you are more at risk of taking on the emotional burden of others in a way that is not as sustainable or healthy. Here are some things to consider.
We have a freedom to choose
You get to choose the type of work that you want to do. I think that a lot of people come into the field thinking that they have to be able to help every single person that walks through the door no matter what. We aren’t medical doctors – so we don’t have the same sort of oath to help anyone that needs it. We can be more selective about the types of work we do. For example, someone with a personal history of trauma may not feel that they are able or want to do trauma work with people. For others, they may not want to work with people that have committed violence. For others, they may simply have a preference for age or other demographics. These are all okay. Now, during your education, you are going to have less precise control over the kinds of cases that you see and the types of training that you receive. But once you are out there in the world, you get to choose where you work and who you work with to an extent. There are certainly work settings where you have less control, such as healthcare centers, but again – you can choose where you want to work.
It is also very frequently encouraged in training programs for therapists to also be undergoing therapy. Some programs actually require you to. Both to become familiar with what it’s like on the other side of the room as a client and because receiving your own support is crucial at times to keep yourself afloat. So, as you are going through your training program and as you venture out into the field as a clinician, it may be important for you to make sure that you have your own therapist to help you get through the difficult emotions that you are left with.
Regularly check in with yourself
One interesting thing about emotional burnout is that it can be sometimes a bit hard to catch. It’s funny- as mental health professionals, we are really good at spotting stuff in other people, but when it comes to ourselves, that’s not always the case. Therefore, you may need to specifically work on that. Through therapy, journaling, and self-reflection, you can start to notice your own behavioral patterns that indicate you might be starting to get burned out, depressed, etc. For me, the things I need to watch out for are more frequent headaches, being less patient with my family, and random feelings of loneliness, especially at night. Those are the things that I have consistently seen that pop up when I am starting to get burned out from work.
Another great source of information like this is other people in your life that you can trust. If you have family, a partner, or good friends that are willing to let you know when they notice your behavior changing, that can be a great thing. If my wife is like, “hey – are you doing okay? It seems like things are getting to you” or “are you running out of steam?” that can give me just that little nudge to self-reflect and take a look at how I’m actually doing. These are the signs that you can keep an eye on that will tell you it’s time to adjust and make some changes before things get out of hand. That could mean taking vacation time, reducing your caseload, increasing your focus on coping skills, or possibly taking a hard look at your work and determining whether structural changes need to be made.
Boundaries are important
Another thing that tends to happen when you are a mental health professional is that you naturally fall into a pattern of being a support for others. Even when it’s not someone overly using you for emotional labor, people might know that they can talk to you about more difficult topics and they might just launch into them unexpectedly. Unfortunately, since they are not mental health professionals, they may not be the best at checking in about whether you are in a good place to hear about the things they want to talk about. This is where boundaries come in. You may need to be more forward about establishing boundaries with people. You don’t have to pre-emptively know what all of your boundaries should be in this regard. It’s a process of learning yourself by paying attention and adjusting as necessary. So you might have some conversations like, “Hey – I don’t want you to feel bad at all because you didn’t know, but I’ve been absorbing a lot of pain from other people at work. In the future, could you just check in first before getting into heavy topics? I don’t want you to be nervous about it. I will be straight with you if I just don’t have the space for it. I still very much care.”
Structuring your time to suit you
Something that I do to avoid burnout has more to do with how I have structured my career. One of the reasons that I knew I wanted to get a PhD rather than operating at the master’s level as a therapist is so that I could have more flexibility and options. I can teach, write, research, test, and be a therapist. For me, it’s important to have variety. I think that I would have a bit of a hard time doing just full-time therapy every day. There are some therapists that crank out like 7 sessions every day of the week. That would be difficult for me to do without burning out. So, my weeks are fairly balanced. I see a nice handful of therapy clients, I have three neuropsychological assessment clients each week, and I have open spaces where I am doing report writing, working on this show, or working on other projects. Oh also parenting and relationships and such. For me, that works well. That balance has also changed over time. I’ve had periods where I was doing much more testing and less therapy. I’ve had periods where my main focus is on content creation.
This may not be the case for you. You might be a creature of habit and find a lot of comfort in the similarity every day. But you can think about these things. If you have the self-awareness to understand yourself, you can apply that throughout the entire process and work to construct a career that works for you.
The last thing that I will say is to just make sure that you have a life outside of work. This may be a bit obvious, but I see SO many people in the mental health field not applying this advice to themselves. Not only does having interests and activities outside of work help to replenish you and keep you relatively sane, but it also helps in therapy. You know how the best professors are the ones with real lived experience and don’t just exist full inside of a classroom? Clients really respond to therapists that are real people. The knowledge you learn in your training program needs to be grounded in reality.
So, hopefully these thoughts are helpful for you. I think that it’s great you are considering your own health and wellbeing as you consider this career. It’s totally possible for you to have a successful career in this field and keep a good balance.
You can listen to this on Episode 298 of the podcast!
Thank you for the great question!
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