For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be a therapist. Since middle school, I had planned to study psychology whenever I went to college and had the goal of having a career counseling those who were struggling with mental health and substance use disorders (SUDs). I wanted to work with people that were struggling with SUDs more than anything because ever since I was young, I was able to recognize the stigmas in our society against those who had been diagnosed with mental health but especially, those who were struggling with substance use.
A part of me always recognized that people with SUDs were misunderstood and judged as being moral failures and “lost causes”. But in reality, these folks were resilient, strong, and offered so much in the way of experience that could help others. I wanted to help, support, and make a difference in people’s lives in order to let them know they were not alone. This passion to help others and work in the counseling field is something that I believe has always been “in my blood”. A lot of days I truly feel like I didn’t choose my career path, but that it chose me.
I followed the path I had planned with my schooling and career as best as anyone can. I obtained my bachelor’s degree in Psychology and my Masters in Counseling Psychology. I have been working in the human services field since 2009, with experience working as a therapist in family focused therapy program, an in-home child and family program, an outpatient drug and alcohol therapist in an MAT program and now working as a clinical quality improvement associate for IRETA. Although I am not currently working in direct patient care I will always consider myself a clinician and therapist first and foremost. It’s a mindset, feeling, and way of thinking that I don’t believe one can ever truly stop. It’s ingrained in us.
So much of what I learned in my 11 years in the field were not things that my time in school could have ever fully taught or prepared me for. Classes can’t truly teach the experience, thoughts, and feelings that a clinician will have when working in the field. There are always the “good days” when we feel like we are truly reaching our clients. But there are also the bad days that are incredibly difficult and can make us ask, “Why did I ever choose to do this?”.
In school, we were taught about clinician burnout, secondary trauma, vicarious trauma, etc. but I don’t think the classroom alone can teach the true meaning and importance of understanding these terms. The role that burnout and compassion fatigue can have a huge impact on a clinician in both their professional and personal lives. It’s so important to consult with colleagues, talk with supervisors regularly for support and guidance, know your limits, and always practice self-care. This field is not an easy one on the mind and soul.
I don’t believe that we can truly understand what those teachers lecturing about clinician burnout means until we’re “in the trenches” of this field. Being a clinician is one of the most rewarding things that I have experienced in my life, but those rewarding experiences did not always come to me free of the emotional and mental toll that this field can have on a person. We get to witness and be a part of our client’s triumphs, successes, families, goals, and so much more. But we also take part in those moments of defeat, shame, and guilt. We hear stories, histories, and experiences from our clients that most people cannot even imagine. It’s our job to help our clients find strength from those dark days and increase the light in the good days. Through this, we often forget to take care of ourselves and practice what so many refer to as self-care which, at times sounds like it should be simple. But while we are good at helping others take care of themselves, we are often the worst at doing the same for ourselves.
Self-care, simply defined, is taking care of yourself-mind, body, and spirit-by recognizing any feelings of stress and fatigue within ourselves. It also includes participating in healthy activities and practices to help promote emotional, physical, and mental wellness and decrease any negative feelings or symptoms that could potentially lead to burnout. Burnout is when one becomes exhausted in all areas of their well-being. Activities that promote self-care may vary and all of us have our own methods and activities we do to practice self-care in healthy ways. These might differ but in the end they all work towards promoting overall well-being within ourselves. The truth is if we don’t take care of ourselves, how we help others is impacted and we are not providing them with the best care because we are not our best selves.
There are some things that I have learned through my years and experiences in the counseling field that are the most important when it comes to practicing self-care and preventing burnout. One of the most important lessons that was the hardest for me to learn was to “not take work home with you.” It sounds simple, but normally this is very hard for us to do. If you’re in this field you most likely have a strong compassion for others, care about people, and worry about them. Knowing what we do about our clients increases this compassion. While it makes us good at our jobs, it can also make it hard for us to not think about everything that we have heard, seen, and things that our clients have gone through when we leave work.
Many of us have faced a new challenge over the last several months, that we never even would have anticipated being a part of our jobs. Our homes are also now where we do our work due to the pandemic. We have encountered a different level of learning to separate our “home life” from our “work life” and some days that separation is going to be a lot harder than others. It is important that we know how to “shut it off” when we need to as “taking it all home” and continuing to worry and think about clients every night will eventually take a negative toll on our mental and emotional state. If this goes on long enough, it is likely that it will impact many other factors in our lives that go beyond practicing standard self-care.
Another one of the most important things I’ve learned about self-care is this: talk with your supervisor about your job on a regular basis. Don’t only discuss your cases on the surface, but discuss how your clients are impacting you as a clinician and a person. Discuss any struggles you may be having with your clients. Be open to the support, guidance, and wisdom they have to provide. This includes allowing yourself to be open to any suggestions that your supervisor may have. Supervisors are there to help in more ways than one. Utilize supervision to help practice this aspect of self-care. It will help you process your cases in a way so that you can improve on leaving your work at work. This doesn’t mean you care any less about your clients. This type of self-care will allow you to be a better clinician.
In addition to participating in regular discourse with your supervisor, it is important to utilize your colleagues for additional support, guidance, constructive criticism, and sometimes the most important, a good laugh.
Find a hobby or activity outside of work to do that calms you and gives you a healthy release from reality. This outlet will help increase your wellness. Make sure this is something that has absolutely nothing to do with the counseling field and your job. Start doing yoga, meditate, go to lunch with friends, do your nails, play basketball. Anything that you enjoy and relieves stress is great. My activity for release is painting. I learned that when I paint I can completely clear my mind and just focus on the paintbrush in my hand. It calms me, centers me, and it’s one thing I can do for self-care. Whatever you decide to do for healthy self-care and wellness doesn’t matter as much as just doing it.
In this field, not every day is going to be full of sunshine and rainbows. The unfortunate reality is that there are going to be a lot of emotional days, draining days, and tough days. You are not always going to be prepared for everything that comes your way, but it is my experience that this field is one of the most rewarding and fulfilling ones despite the things that aren’t so pretty.
Take care of yourself. Seek out and accept guidance, support, and understanding. Do something fun. Don’t allow your whole life to be the job. Take up a hobby, talk about it, cry about it, and most importantly laugh about it. This field can harden you if you let it, but with some self-care, growth, and help along the way, it’ll fill your heart and soul with so much good that you’ll know exactly why you chose to do what you do.
For further reading:
Compassion Fatigue and the Behavioral Health Workforce Curriculum Infusion Package