Therapists often talk about self-care with their clients, but it’s just as important that they practice it themselves. Because psychotherapists spend so much time supporting others through their challenges, self-care is necessary for preventing therapist burnout. If you work in the mental health field, never underestimate the importance of self-care.
Burnout is mental, emotional, or physical exhaustion that occurs after prolonged stress. This can happen in any area of life, but it’s most commonly associated with work-related exhaustion. People who have high-stress careers or helping professions are particularly vulnerable to burnout. When you sacrifice your own needs for the sake of your work responsibilities, you can quickly become drained.
Therapist burnout is common for a number of reasons. Constantly interacting with people who are in emotional pain or who are struggling with their mental health can take a toll. Psychotherapists are drawn to the profession because they’re compassionate, empathetic people, but this also means that hearing about others’ pain can be emotionally exhausting.
Worrying frequently about clients can contribute to therapist burnout as well. A therapist who works with high-risk individuals may feel anxious about their safety. This type of constant worry can be detrimental to your mental and physical health.
A therapist may be so focused on their clients’ struggles that they forget to acknowledge their own. If your mental health goes unchecked for too long, your own emotional challenges can escalate until they become overwhelming.
Psychotherapists may experience burnout from having an unstable sense of self. Some clients idealize the therapist, and others demonize them. These varying responses can lead to extreme self-doubt. Also, therapy is a long-term process, and a therapist may feel helpless when the progress is slow.
Being a therapist is very rewarding and meaningful, but it isn’t easy work. According to a research review, more than half of the sampled therapists reported moderate to high levels of burnout.
Here are some of the most common signs of therapist burnout:
- Dreading going to work
- Giving advice instead of encouraging clients to make their own decisions
- Difficulty focusing during sessions
- Feeling apathetic toward clients
- Starting sessions late or ending sessions early
- Feeling relieved when clients cancel
- Forgetting about meetings, paperwork, or other tasks
- Daydreaming about other careers
- Sleeping problems, fatigue, nausea, headaches, or other physical symptoms
What Is Self-care?
Understanding self-care can be difficult as it doesn’t have one definition that’s agreed upon by all mental health professionals. Virtually all psychotherapists agree that it’s important, though. Broadly, self-care is anything that you do to maintain or improve your mental, physical, or emotional health.
Because everyone’s priorities are different, self-care can vary from person to person. Some people focus on eating well and exercising as their self-care, and others keep mental health at the forefront by meditating daily or spending quality time with loved ones. You could set aside a specific day or time to dedicate to self-care, or you could build small habits of self-care into your regular routine.
Here are just a few ways that you can engage in self-care as a therapist:
- Regularly participating in hobbies and spending time with friends
- Maintaining an exercise routine
- Participating in relaxing activities like mindfulness or yoga
- Not answering emails from home
- Not overloading your caseload with too many clients
- Receiving supervision or speaking with colleagues about professional challenges
- Scheduling short breaks throughout the day
- Saying “no” when necessary
- Seeing your own therapist
Self-care is living your life in a way that is physically and mentally sustainable. As a therapist, a good self-care practice allows you to maintain your well-being so that you don’t deplete your own energy to care for your clients.
Why Self-care Is So Important
Therapist burnout can be a serious problem. Not only does it affect the therapist, but it can also affect their clients. Severe cases of burnout can lead to a loss of empathy and compassion, which may prevent the therapist from providing adequate services. Even if the therapist doesn’t intend for their quality of work to suffer, it can be inevitable when they’re so mentally and emotionally exhausted.
Self-care is the key to preventing or recovering from burnout as a therapist. Taking care of your health makes you more resilient, which helps you support your clients without feeling emotionally drained. This improves your own mental health and ensures that you’re offering support and compassion to your clients.
The client and therapist relationship is the foundation of the therapeutic process. Although you don’t reveal much personal information to clients, you are still an integral part of the session. For progress to happen, the client has to trust the therapist. A healthy, trusting relationship between the client and therapist can only develop when the therapist is empathetic and attuned to the client’s needs. Self-care is one of the best ways for you to accomplish this.
Self-care is an ethical requirement for psychotherapists, too. The American Psychological Association Code of Ethics states that psychologists should “strive to be aware of the possible effect of their own physical and mental health on their ability to help those with whom they work.” The American Counseling Association Code of Ethics requires that counselors practice self-care to “maintain and promote their own emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual well-being to best meet their professional responsibilities.”
A therapist shouldn’t just practice self-care for the benefit of their clients, though. Practicing self-care is critical for your own quality of life. It’s important to find ways to take your mind off of work so that constant stress or worry don’t affect your mental health. When you engage in self-care, you’re focusing only on yourself and your own needs. A therapist spends most of their day thinking about others, so these moments that you take for yourself are valuable. Regardless of your professional performance, you should practice self-care because you deserve to be healthy and well.
Self-care is a necessity for psychotherapists. If you’re a therapist, make sure that you’re meeting your own needs and taking care of your mental, emotional, and physical health. Doing so will benefit both you and your clients, and it will allow you to have a successful, enjoyable, and long-lasting career as a therapist.