The Need for Self-Care

One of the most challenging aspects of a career in psychology is the continuous barrage of troubling human emotions which clients inherently share. Everyone on the front lines of mental health has had to learn how to deal with the onslaught of intense feelings that go with the job. The one protective measure they all attest to is the need for self-care. With professional burn-out looming on their horizons, statistical studies of the field agree: you simply must learn how to keep yourself mentally healthy in order to maintain a successful career. We spoke with numerous experts about their beliefs on burn-out and self-care. The following reflects the answers of two experts when asked, “What are your feelings about self-care and burn-out?”

Michelle LewisMichelle Lewis, LCSW, is a counselor at Salt Lake Weight Counseling, in Salt Lake City, Utah. Specializing in helping clients who are constantly preoccupied with thoughts of food; she works with those who struggle with barriers to weight loss, emotional eating, binge eating, compulsive overeating, food addiction, bulimia, stress management, low self-esteem, trauma, and relationship issues. When asked to discuss her opinions on self-care and burn-out Lewis responded:

Burn-out is the rule, not the exception when you aren't taking care of yourself. Many people in our profession tend to put the needs of others first, and this can be detrimental because we often struggle with taking on the burdens of our clients. I use the example of an oxygen mask on an airplane. If you don't put yours on first, you will not be helpful to anyone else. All of the areas discussed above are your oxygen mask.

I handle it in my career by making sure that I exercise daily, I eat regularly, I spend time with family and friends, I have several hobbies that I use to relax, and take vacations often. I also remind myself of two things I have learned along the way. The biggest lesson is that I have to leave work at work. Once you take it home with you, you are out of balance. The other lesson is that you can't care more about a client's problems than they do. We see many people who aren't ready or willing to do what it takes to change their patterns, and that is not a reflection on you!

Charles RyanCharles Ryan, LMHC, earned a Master’s of Science in Psychology and is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor working with both individuals and couples. He helps those who are having issues with anger, anxiety, grief trauma, and depression, as well as those experiencing substantial relationship issues. Ryan can be contacted at Adult & Child Mental Health Care, LLC, in Pensacola, FL.

The question of burn out is a big topic...especially for new (or almost) therapists. There is a saying that 'If the therapist is working harder than the client something is wrong.' That is not uncommon in new therapists. An interning therapist is working hard to put into practice all the theory they learned in school, AND they learned that if the therapist does X the client will respond positively with Y. Not so in the real world.

Clients come to therapy for different reasons and they are not always for reasons that promote healthy change. The young therapist might not pick up on this and will endeavor to work hard toward the ideal goal for the client while the client has another, less taxing agenda. Maybe they are just there to get a spouse off their back or to satisfy a judge's order.

A seasoned therapist will more likely realize that it's up to the client to set the goals for the sessions and the client's job to implement the tools the therapist may introduce. This therapist knows how to do their part and leave the other part to the client. This is less likely to lead to burn out.

Self-care to avoid burn out is the biggest problem for counselors today. We are not taught about burn out. Also in the world of managed care it is about the volume of clients seen. A lot needs to be accomplished in a few sessions. All of this can lead to burn out.

Most therapists are drawn to the work due to a need to be involved in exorcising demons. That quest can occupy a great amount of one's time and life energy. One can become tapped out before realizing it. A therapist is only human after all.

In conclusion…

If you are just considering a career in psychology or if you are already on the road to becoming a social worker, therapist, counselor, life coach or psychologist; the evidence is clear: in order for you to enjoy a long, healthy and satisfying career you must begin today to practice intentional self-care. It’s never too early to start, but it can be too late if burn-out is right around the corner. Learning from experts is one way to care from self, so taking their advice will have you solidly on your way!