By Ian Hammonds
Are you a new therapist overwhelmed by finding a work-life balance in this often unpredictable profession? Are you a seasoned clinician only now beginning to realize you need healthier ways to handle the long-term stress associated with counseling? Or are you already well-aware of the importance of self-care and on a journey to learn evermore effective ways to decompress from your professional role?
To the outside world, therapists are sometimes viewed as quasi-invincible, mysterious creatures who seem to have the ability to magically turn off their emotions after a long day of sessions.
Often, therapists even use the “blank slate” approach with their clients, a tactic in which they reveal virtually nothing about themselves while in sessions. While the approach is rigid in nature, it’s ethical for therapists to keep details about their own lives to a minimum, both to maximize the client’s time and maintain professional boundaries. But from the therapists’ perspective, it can also mean keeping their own realities at bay for as long as eight sessions a day.
This art of maintaining a work-life balance for therapists can be an exhausting, challenging, and perpetual process, but balance is possible.
Therapists usually fall into this profession due to their overly caring and compassionate nature. At Just Mind, we stress to our clients, who are also compassionate, to not give away too much of themselves and their resources as a matter of self-preservation. As hard as it can be for us as natural caregivers, therapists need to practice what they preach and make room for their own boundaries. This includes practicing self-care.
It’s important to stress here that there’s no “perfect” way for a therapist to practice self-care. It’s impossible to cognitively turn off our brains from a session. Sometimes, if we feel triggered or exhausted by certain sessions, self-care may simply mean accepting that our reaction is okay.
For even the most seasoned clinician, overwhelming feelings can creep in after particularly difficult sessions. But that’s why it’s all the more important to learn about yourself and what methods of self-care work for you. After all, it’s only by finding balance in your own life that you can be your most present self while in session.
An alarmingly high number of therapists burn out of this profession a mere seven years into it, and it’s because we’re not reminded often enough to take care of ourselves. Below is a list of resources to help any therapist learn about different methods of self-care. It’s a long list, but as I tell all of my clients, “It’s better to have too many resources than not enough.” It’s time for us as healers, as professionals, and as humans to have just as many resources for ourselves as we give to our clients.
Avoid Isolation: Most therapists tend to have relatively introverted personalities. The thought of completely closing yourself off from the world outside of work when you’re handling a caseload of 25–30 clients a week is seductive. But it’s crucial for all therapists, no matter how introverted or extroverted, to find some form of community and support.
As attachment theory scientifically shows, our bodies are hardwired to want connection, to feel support and validation, and to know that we’re not alone in any battle or hardship. If we feel isolated, our health, relationships, and overall quality of life suffer. And as therapists, we are in no way exempt.
Being relatively new to the Austin area (and being a fellow introvert myself), I was overwhelmed with how many networks exist for therapists in this city. There are many organizations, Facebook pages, case consults, happy hours, and other forms of both in-person and online communities here to provide support. Austin itself is a very therapist-friendly place. Its progressive culture fosters the transformation and growth that can come from therapy, and as a result there are many therapists in this city. If you’re not in Austin but are in need of therapist community support, therapist networking events in your area can be fantastic resources, as well as online groups, especially if you’re in a more secluded area.
Avoid Substance Abuse: This might seem like too obvious of a suggestion. Therapists who are constantly assisting clients through alcohol and drug addiction must themselves be immune to the dangers of substance abuse, right? Not quite. Statistics show that 80 percent of all healthcare employees (doctors, therapists, nurses, etc.) abuse drugs or alcohol in some way to cope with the potential burnout or exhaustion of the amount of people that they treat.
If you notice a pattern of drinking almost every night after work, feeling out of control of your alcohol intake, or if other people have called you out on your harmful alcohol habits, it may be time to begin your own substance abuse counseling.
See Your Own Therapist: Perhaps the best way therapists can care for themselves is to attend their own therapy sessions. In my years as a therapist, I’ve found this to be the most important form of self-care. We don’t realize how much we hold onto as therapists, and to have a safe place to release all that we internalize is crucial.
Some great things to explore with your own therapist might be: finding various ways to decompress after work, determining your trigger points with clients, and setting goals for yourself in maintaining a healthy work-life balance.
At Just Mind, several of our therapists treat other therapists. If you’re a therapist in Austin and looking for your own counseling, we can definitely work with you, and we do offer sliding scales. You can either give us a call or make a counseling appointment. Additionally, Capital Area Counseling in North Austin is a great resource for therapists who need therapists.
Avoid Overworking: As much as we enjoy being in a “helping” profession, it’s incredibly easy to overextend ourselves. Some ways to avoid spreading yourself too thin as therapists would be to limit the number of clients you see a week, turning off your email notifications on your phone once you leave work and over the weekends, and beginning to set other boundaries for yourself.
Just as it’s important not to under-function for our clients, it is just as much if not more important not to over-function for our clients. That means not immediately answering client emails that aren’t related to scheduling, not allowing clients to stay past their allotted time, and being mindful of how much time you spend helping a client with things outside of sessions such as paperwork or letter-writing.
Practice Containment: This is a very useful tool that therapists use on themselves in order to avoid the “spillover” of work into their personal or work lives. It can include things like using body awareness, being mindful of what triggers you both during and after sessions, and visualizing all of the tension in your body as a ball and being able to store this ball somewhere out-of-sight and out-of-mind. Containment can also include cognitive switches such as touching the top of your office door as you are leaving or turning off a lamp once you’re done with sessions.
Take Vacations: As I like to freely tell my clients, our bodies weren’t made for 12-hour work days, 60-hour weeks, or months with an overexertion of mental energy. As much as modern society expects us to break our backs for a paycheck, we were meant to disconnect. If we as therapists don’t take time off from work, be intentional with our downtime, and temporarily disconnect from the everyday workload, we’ll exhaust ourselves and not give our clients the quality of care they seek from us. Emotional wellness days are also essential for us to preserve some of our own emotional energy for ourselves, rathering than spending it all on our clients.