Mental health professionals provide emotional sustenance, direction, resources and referrals for those they aid, whether the location is an outpatient office, an inpatient psychiatric facility or addiction related rehab program.
They are expected to offer the best that their expertise and training has to give.
Susan, a licensed Social Worker recalls a time when she worked on an inpatient unit. She would describe her various roles. She was a scheduling secretary who made aftercare appointments, a travel agent who arranged transportation home, a real estate agent who found patients housing and a ‘drug dealer,’ who made sure they had their prescriptions filled prior to discharge.
She would also jokingly say “Social Worker/Miracle Worker; same thing.” A friend referred to their academic degree (MSW) as Master of Saving the World.
What happens when those who treat clients in need, are in need themselves? Sometimes they find that the ‘world is too much with them,’ as they serve with dedication.
Julie, who has an extensive background in many therapeutic modalities, says, “I have always viewed myself as a ‘helper’ and even when I was young, I was the ‘go-to’ person for my friends; the listening ear and problem solver.
Likely, it evolved from having parents who, without benefit of college education, had those abilities as well. I was also grooming myself to become a co-dependent caregiver who thought it was her job to fix, save, heal, cure and kiss boo-boos and make them all better.
These days, I refer to that as ‘savior behavior’ that requires close monitoring lest it get out of control.” She has discovered that there have indeed been times when those caregiving tendencies have left her feeling depleted.
Saving the World or Making a Difference?
Ask yourself your motivation for choosing to become a therapist. Is it really to save the world or just to make a difference? The second is realistic, the first unlikely and a set-up for disappointment. You weren’t handed a magic wand, Superman or Wonder Woman cape along with your diploma when you graduated
• Be aware of the hazards of burnout or what one therapist refers to as ‘tater tot syndrome’ that leaves you feeling like a crispy fried piece of potato. It is not uncommon for clinicians to become cynical about their work, as they emotionally distance themselves from their clients. Job dis-satisfaction occurs when attention to needs is lacking.
• Have solid supports among friends and family. Ask for them to provide listening ears and if possible, constructive suggestions. Re-hashing the same litany of complaints may not yield a positive outcome.
• Deal with your own emotional issues and baggage since vicarious traumatization can occur and memories can get triggered by hearing clients’ stories all day long.
• Find healthy coping skills and don’t turn to substances or other addictive behaviors.
• Engage in either group or individual supervision with trusted colleagues. One of the benefits of sharing ideas with co-workers is gleaning a myriad of solutions for challenges with clients. It can be easy to lose perspective if you feel as if you are working in a vacuum.
• Do things that enliven you. That could be time in nature, with animals, fitness activities, eating healthy and delicious food, listening to music, dancing or reading.
• Take time to breathe. Yoga and meditation assist in slowing the often If hectic and stressful pace of your working day.
• Set boundaries with clients, co-workers and the people in your personal life. Often therapists feel as if they are on call 24/7. Put up your ‘off duty’ sign.
• Practice what author Cheryl Richardson refers to as ‘extreme self-care,’ as you offer the same consideration for yourself as you would for your clients. Although most therapists would agree that you can’t fill someone else’s cup if yours is empty, that doesn’t stop them from attempting that magic trick.
• Create an image that speaks to all of the painful places you have experienced. Gather together many types of art supplies as you might play with the abandon of a child. Draw, color, paint or sculpt your feelings.
• Break down your daily to- do list into manageable bites and experience the delight of checking them off one by one, as you feel accomplished.
• For some, spiritual sustenance is helpful. Prayer, time with those in a faith community, engaging in inspirational readings and visiting a church, synagogue, temple or mosque may assist with encouraging over-all well-being.
• Maintain self-awareness. Often we become so acclimated to certain routines and patterns that we remain entrenched in them unconsciously. It isn’t until physical or emotional discomfort occurs that we notice.
• Be gentle with yourself as you release unreasonable expectations for your performance.
• Keep a journal in which you record and process your emotions. Look back on earlier entries to determine if you did your best in each interaction with clients.
• Find role models who exhibit the type of resilience that you desire and ask for him or her to mentor you. The relationship between mentor and mentee can be lifelong.
• Avoid taking on the pain of your clients. While empathy is an important skill for a therapist to have at his or her disposal, taken to an extreme, it can be damaging to both parties.
Remember that he or she, if given the choice, would prefer to shuttle the pain away, but would not want to give it over to a stranger. Know that you are not responsible for caring anyone’s pain, but some have expressed feeling a sense of relief as they remember that when we came into this community.
Most important is the reality that you are doing the best you can in seemingly impossible circumstances.
Sounding board picture on Shutterstock.