Therapists, It's Time to Focus on Yourself for a Change
Updated: Apr 18, 2022
Self-care is a prominent buzzword in the media landscape of health and wellness—but, more often than not, it brings to mind images of pampering, taking a bath, or getting a massage. While these are wonderful ways to treat ourselves, self-care is so much more than these few acts. We should also be caring for our minds in ways not often promoted by mainstream self-care advice.
To achieve more long-term relief, you must allow your body to feel the emotions of the moment. This is what we call mindfulness.
As mental health professionals, we may find ourselves ruminating over stress and emotional turmoil—not just from our own issues, but from that of our clients, too. The sheer weight of these feelings can build up and lead to burnout. Burnout has many faces; common ones are apathy, indifference, avoidance, exhaustion, and irritability.
"Burnout is described in terms of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization (Killian 2008), diminished self-efficacy (Stebnicki 2007), and reduced personal accomplishment (Clark et al. 2009). Burnout among mental health practitioners is more difficult to treat than general work stress (Dreison et al. 2018), highlighting the need for prevention or early treatment. Unfortunately, the prevalence of burnout among mental health professionals is significant." (Gall, 2019)
Through the course of my career, I’ve personally found that taking several extended breaks each year does wonders for my morale. As my time off approaches, I can feel the noticeable tension in my body, but I come back to my clients feeling clearer in the head. I can see their stories with a fresh perspective.
Although I love what I do, some days I wake up with that “ugh! I don’t want to work today” feeling in my mind and body. Those days, I focus on breathing and push through. While this is a strategy that works for me, I also understand the role that my privilege plays, and I respect that many women cannot work around a flexible schedule like mine to incorporate this lifestyle.
Still, I would pose this challenge: can you fit just an hour of rest into each week to start? And if one hour is still too much, ask yourself: why am I prioritizing each component of my schedule more than self-care? We can get caught up in our schedules and see no way out—I’ve experienced this firsthand! But this is a sign of impending fatigue and burnout.
When I was in the midst of raising my children, I found myself in this loop. It is what caused my own bout of burnout, and ultimately, I had no choice but to quit my job after nearly fifteen years. I was unhappy, had no connection to the work I was doing, and was deep in mom shame. It took me a few years to process and heal from my corporate burnout. During that time, I had bad dreams, high anxiety and a constant desire to keep myself occupied. I had spent so much time faking smiles and appearing busy, I struggled to feel what was real.
It's the “feeling” that’s the first step. Stepping back and simply feeling our emotions allows us to process—and then the care begins. As a therapist, I strongly believe that mental health professionals need our own therapists, too. It can be impossible to avoid connecting our own “stuff” to that of our clients. It’s how we relate as humans! Therapy sessions allows us to unload and process these emotions.
For the sake of self-compassion, it is also vital to connect with our bodies. Personally, I have found that yoga is excellent for uniting my body with what’s happening inside. On the weeks I neglect my consistent yoga practice, I find the impact is clear and immediate; first, my body starts feeling uncomfortable, amplifying those little aches and pains. I hold on to my post-workday mood longer than normal, ruminating deep in my head over what I took in that day. When I practice yoga, my mind clears much faster and my body feels better.
“Without adequate care, the mental health professional is equally at risk of 'burnout, vicarious trauma, and compassion fatigue,' says Ashley Davis Bush (2015). And while the warning is stark, it is of genuine concern for anyone whose focus is others’ wellbeing.” (Jeremy Sutton, 2021)
Keeping a regular practice of self-care can be challenging. After trial and error, I’ve found that scheduling explicit self-care time at least three days a week is my sweet spot. Most importantly, I maintain a strict boundary against scheduling over these times of rest. Self-care has become a priority in my life, but I work to keep it that way.
I absolutely love the work I do, and I want to be my best for my clients. To achieve that, I need to be the best version of myself first. I can make excuses as to why I don’t have time for myself, or I can commit. That is my work.
A couple years ago, after hearing my peers express how burnt out and unhappy they were in their work, it become apparent that something needs to change. As a member of Shanthi Project’s board, I could clearly see the connection between therapy and mindfulness practice—and the Revive retreat for mental health professionals was born.
If we don’t take care of one another, who will? We are the group that supports first responders, but we are first responders, too. By the nature of our profession, therapists’ work is often invisible—but we do not have to be martyrs. We cannot fully help our clients when we are not at full capacity ourselves. If you’re a therapist, keep this in mind. Know that there is a first step in the journey away from burnout: join your peers at Revive, a self-care adventure, on May 13.
Gall, K. P. (2019, May 23). Dear Mental Health Practitioners, Take Care of Yourselves: a Literature Review on Self-Care. Retrieved from National Library of Medicine: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7223989/
Jeremy Sutton, P. (2021, 12 13). Home/Self Esteem. Retrieved from Positive Psychology: https://positivepsychology.com/self-care-therapists/