Many who take up careers in clinical psychotherapy have a deep personal commitment – some might say calling – to help others on their journey toward better mental health. Some, like post traumatic stress expert Dr. Bessel van der Kolk (whose father was a Nazi concentration camp survivor), found powerful motivation to improve mental illness treatment after bearing witness to the deep impact of trauma on a loved one.
By nature, the work of a clinical psychotherapist can carry a high risk of burnout because so much of the therapist’s job is to listen deeply to toxic effects of trauma every day.
Helping people recover mental health can be very rewarding, but client success alone is not enough to keep us safe from the risk of burnout – or to keep us as effective with all clients as we can be.
As practicing clinicians, we need self-care strategies of our own to sustain our energies, develop our skills, and maintain our best work as therapists. Good self-care, specific to our therapeutic work, is essential to remaining effective and healthy as clinicians.
What is Good Self Care for Therapists?
Self-care is not a haphazard set of distractions in between office hours. It means having a personal answer to the question: What are you going to do to ensure that you are present with your clients, at peace within yourself, and informed with new knowledge that can make you most effective?
Professional self-care shows in the habits and routines you use to keep a healthy separation between your personal life and your work, for example:
- Being able to set and honor clear boundaries with your time – “These are the hours I work. These are the hours I’m available.”
- Having restorative activities in your life other than work – You can take the time you need at day’s end to transition from work to home life. You can enjoy your personal time and close relationships without feeling intrusions from work.
- Giving yourself access to consultation with colleagues – You have other clinicians to collaborate with; you can reach out to someone about professional challenges.
- Making sure that you are well educated – You remain updated with approaches and skills to respond effectively during client interactions. You can rely on a full range of therapeutic tools and techniques that come to you naturally during sessions with clients, and you are nurturing your strengths.
Creating Self-Caring Rituals and Restorative Separation Time
Higher education programs for careers in clinical psychotherapy have progressed to help therapists promote their own mental health. However, many therapists never truly learn in the classroom how to go from being one hundred percent present for clients, to resting from that work when they go home.
Having rituals and separation time are important routines I needed, and which I developed for myself. These are vital to prevent having one area of life spill over into the other. For example:
- I make sure I eat breakfast
- I get to the office at least a half an hour or 45 minutes before my first client
- I do whatever I need to do to get myself organized
- I make sure I take a lunch break during the day
In the morning I have the time I need, so that the angst that I might have over terrible traffic does not spill into my time with clients. I can get settled into my space to really be present with them. My lunch break is the time to take care of myself and make sure that I eat.
And then at the end of the day, because I have a commute, that’s my separation time. My car ride home is when I make the shift between my work life and my home life. These are the 30 or so minutes I have when I am actively leaving work behind before I walk in the door at home.
Good Self Care Is Essential, Not a Luxury
I believe self-care is something we all need to make a priority as therapists. A lot of therapists tend to work through lunch. It’s important to nourish yourself and tend to what you need. You may tell yourself you’re fine with the extra work. But if the quality of client care (or your personal care!) is impacted, these work habits may not be in your best interest.
Sometimes you may find that between work life and home life, one is intruding into the other. This situation may indicate it’s time to re-think self-care. Specific examples:
- You’re spending time working (returning client calls, for example), when you are at home
- You’ve spent your evening thinking about client X
- You dwell on less-than-optimal interactions, thinking “I wish I had done A instead of B”
- When you get to work you’re still thinking about that guy who cut you off in traffic
- You are in session and your stomach is growling