by Kristin Kelly, NCC, LMHC , Owner of Tranquility Counseling & Wellness
Making the decision to become a therapist wasn’t very difficult. Helping others has always been a passion of mine, so I knew this would somehow be a part of my life. My personal experiences and how I’ve been affected by them heavily influenced my decision to help others process their own life experiences.
Growing up, I was the person my friends would come to when they needed help. I found this to be incredibly gratifying and humbling at the same time. Helping those I’ve cared about has instilled a fire in my soul; one that continues to burn through the process of helping my clients and advocating for mental wellness. Some call this the “helper’s high;” that unexplainable feeling you get when you know you’ve tried to do something to make a positive difference in someone’s life.
After years of hard work and dedication, the day came when I could finally call myself a licensed counselor. I was over the moon about starting my new career and finally being able to help people in a big way. I knew I was going to make a difference!
My first job in the field was at a large, urban, community-based clinic that served those who have few resources and are struggling to meet life’s most basic needs, including maintaining stable housing and having food for their families. My heart immediately went out to my clients and those seeking services at the clinic. Listening to my clients’ stories and attempting to help relieve the pain each person was experiencing was my main goal. I wanted to help everyone and I wanted to help them now! However, it wasn’t long before I realized there were other components to this process that I hadn’t anticipated. In fact, only a few weeks passed before my colleagues warned me about the difficulties of working in this environment. I was told that this environment was sink or swim: you either get in and learn or you get out. “When you start having nightmares and can’t sleep, then you know you’ve made it.” Nightmares!?! What had I gotten myself into?
Shortly after this conversation, I noticed significant changes in the way I was feeling from day-to-day. I had tension throughout my entire body, chronic fatigue, frequent headaches and an anxiousness that never quit. I found myself worrying about the amount of work I had to complete each day and whether I was even capable of handling the amount of paperwork required. With a caseload of over 100 clients, I was drowning. Treading water every day; struggling to breathe. Distress around managing my caseload spilled over and into sessions with my clients. With each completed session, my worries grew. I found it more and more difficult to be present for my clients and help them in the way they truly deserved. I was consumed with anxiety and my body was paying the price. Eventually, I realized I was experiencing burnout: something I had heard about in graduate school, but realistically knew nothing about it. Once I came to this realization, I knew something had to change and it had to change quickly.
Burnout can look and feel different for different people. Some may experience exhaustion or difficulty concentrating while others may find it difficult to calm themselves down and get adequate sleep. Regardless of the symptoms, there are a few very important things to keep in mind when it comes to recognizing and managing burnout.
- Know your body. Awareness of your own body’s experience is the first step to healing. Many of us therapists teach our clients about the importance of being in tune with their own body; this is no different for us. After all, we are human too! Knowing what we feel and where we feel it in our body is essential.
- Know your stressors. Once we recognize that our bodies are in trouble, we need to figure out which aspects of our work day are causing us difficulty. This is important as it informs us of possible changes that may need to be made in order to improve how we are feeling. For me, these included the amount of paperwork and a lack of support from supervisors.
What to do About It
As therapists, we spend quite a bit of time educating our clients about how to care for themselves. A variety of self-care and coping strategies are often practiced to help our clients become more equipped to manage life stressors. The same is true for us. We need to make self-care a priority and know which strategies are going to work best for us.
I always encourage my clients to create a “toolbox” of coping skills that they can pull specific skills and strategies out of when needed and tailor the skill to the situation they are experiencing. I found this to be helpful for myself as well: deep breathing, mindfulness exercises and effectively managing my time were crucial to my healing process. In addition, I realized working in the clinic setting was not for me. I knew I needed to work in a more supportive and stable environment. For me, this meant private practice.
Sometimes our experiences may be so great they require us to make more drastic changes in our lives. For some, this may mean finding a new job or transitioning into a new career altogether. Regardless of the outcome, gaining awareness about our own individual experiences, bodies and limits only enables us to make healthier decisions and lead healthier lives.
Have you experienced burnout and come back from it? Tell us your story in the comments below or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.