The field of counseling is one that offers great rewards. We get to see people go from their worst to their best. We get to be a part of the change that our clients are seeking.
Even so, the hours and hours we spend listening to the pain of others can take its toll. That raises an important question: While you invest so much in “saving” others, are you neglecting yourself? If so, you, like many of us in this profession, could be in danger of compassion fatigue or burnout.
Understanding compassion fatigue and burnout
Working as a counselor can weigh on you. You may find that you are having more difficulty being empathic in situations in which it once came naturally to you.
And although this compassion fatigue may start at your job, it can bleed over into your most intimate relationships. You may even find yourself feeling that you cannot possibly give anything else emotionally to others.
Among the signs of compassion fatigue are:
- Excessive blaming
- Bottled-up emotions
- Isolating from others
- Substance abuse
- Compulsive behaviors
- Poor self-care
- Legal problems
- Feeling mentally and physically tired
- Feeling preoccupied
- Living in denial about problems
- Difficulty concentrating
Burnout is closely related to compassion fatigue, but in extreme cases it can have more serious impacts on a person’s physical and mental health. Some of the signs of burnout include:
- Chronic fatigue
- A quick trigger to feel angry or suspicious
- Susceptibility to illness
- Loss of appetite
Burnout does not just happen overnight. Instead, there are stages and patterns that can help you to identify the issues and assist you in addressing them. Although having a great deal of enthusiasm for a project is considered positive and can often lead to a wealth of progress, look for signs of stagnation, frustration or apathy that may follow. Each is a sign of trouble.
Stages of burnout:
Prevention is vital if one wants to keep working at optimum levels. Look at the list of practical ways to find balance, recharge and stay focused. Be prepared to think outside of “normal therapist behaviors” and identify those things that help you remain focused and energetic. Consider hobbies and activities that you once enjoyed but perhaps stepped away from because of graduate studies or other life-related obstacles. Embrace what you once enjoyed, especially those things that are far removed from the helping professions.
As for me, I re-embraced classic car restoration and time spent in nature, while adding classic farm tractor collecting (among other hobbies). So, go see that play or musical, get your hands dirty, listen to loud music or take part in other events. You cannot stay “on” all the time and still be effective as a counselor.
Here are some tips on prevention of compassion fatigue and burnout for helping professionals:
- Get educated on signs and symptoms of compassion fatigue and burnout
- Practice self-care
- Set emotional boundaries
- Engage in outside hobbies
- Cultivate healthy friendships outside of work
- Keep a journal
- Boost your resiliency
- Use positive coping strategies
- Identify workplace strategies
- Seek personal therapy
We are involved in one of the most emotionally draining professions that exist. You are here because you want to help people make a change and sustain that change. So give yourself the ongoing maintenance that your body and mind require. Find the answer that works best for you and follow through. We have too many people depending on us. We owe it to them, but, most importantly, we owe it to ourselves. Let’s do this.
“Doc Warren” Corson III is a counselor, educator, writer and the founder, developer, and clinical and executive director of Community Counseling Centers of Central CT Inc. (www.docwarren.org) and Pillwillop Therapeutic Farm (www.pillwillop.org). Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Additional resources related to nonprofit design, documentation and related information can be found at docwarren.org/supervisionservices/resourcesforclinicians.html.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.