Don't Burn Your Candle From Both Ends

“You can’t help others until you first help yourself”. “Don’t burn your candle from both ends”.

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I used to hate those cliches, but when it comes to therapist wellness, it’s true. My first experience with burnout happened just 3 short months after graduating with my Master’s degree. I move across the country, and I dived head-first into the real-world of therapy. My eyes were opened to a whole new world of disillusionment that I could never have been prepared for. I experienced an episode of burnout, and I know it won’t be my last. Along the road to getting my licensure as a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC), I encountered things that would make even the most resilient people burn out, if not get a little crispy around the edges.

  • I saw ethics violations and fraud that hurt clients and the entire mental health system is full of corruption. I reported a provider to a licensing board, lost my job and relocated.
  • I’ve had 5 jobs in just over 2 years. I worked overtime at roughly $15 an hour with student loan debt weighing heavily in the back of my mind. One agency I worked for, closed suddenly overnight after a few weeks of my pay checks bouncing. I also had to pay for weekly supervision in order to keep my associate license.
  • I worked in homes with roaches, smells and sights that seemed to be right out of horror movies. I saw the effects of child abuse and sat back and felt hopeless when CPS couldn’t help. Poverty, inequality and suffering were in my face every day.
  • I got physically and verbally attacked by clients. I was providing services in rural areas where guns were prevalent and cell-phone service was not.
  • I frequently felt undermined by administrators. I was told that the letters after my name didn’t matter, even though I had worked so hard for them. I was told I needed to “earn my stripes” even though I had education, experience, and a license.
  • I was on-call for emergencies 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. I came to associate my ringtone with crisis and would cringe when I heard it.

These things do not make me a martyr. These are the typical experiences of a new therapist. I share them in the hopes of increasing awareness, decreasing the isolation and shame other therapists feel. I hope to open the door to discussions about how we can make systematic changes to make things better. Improving the workplace for counselors, and in turn, improving services for clients with mental health needs will be a forever on-going process. This topic could easily be it’s own post, book, or series of books. In the mean time, how will you stay healthy, engaged, and able to serve your clients? Here is what has helped me along the way:

  • Embracing the inevitable and learning to recognize the signs of burnout. Burnout will happen. Be ready and keep a look-out. It can mean feeling exhausted, numb, hopeless, helpless or depressed. It could mean feeling anxious, panicked and unable to sleep. Other signs include relief when clients cancel sessions, dreading going to work in the morning, client-blaming, or being sarcastic, cynical and resentful.
  • Receiving lots of supervision from other therapists. One-on-one direction from therapists with more experience than me was priceless. Group supervision also helped decrease my sense of isolation and boosted my confidence.
  • Becoming a regular therapy client. I believe therapy is effective for helping people cope with a stressful life. That is why I’m a counselor, and it is also why I am not afraid to seek counseling for myself.
  • Taking steps toward basic self-care. Keep eating, exercising and sleeping habits healthy. Avoid alcohol and drugs.
  • Maintaining relationships with family and friends. Build your social support network. Stay connected to your community.
  • Taking time off. Get out of town or turning off the phone. It’s ok to un-plug and relax, even if it is just for a few minutes.
  • Seeing the big picture. Every therapist has a vision and a reason they entered this field. Remind yourself of it.

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