I do not want to get out of bed, so I press snooze on my alarm again. I feel nauseated and think about calling in sick. Finally, I drag myself out of bed and take my time getting dressed for work. I leave my house reluctantly. On the drive to work, I find myself wishing that I could turn around. I dread going to work. I arrive 15 minutes late.
This was my pattern for longer than six months. Why was I the last one to figure it out? I was in burnout.
Learning to fly
I remember learning about self-care in the first semester of my graduate counseling program. I was so intrigued by the topic that I even wrote a paper about it during my first graduate course. My mentor and professor in graduate school focused on self-care in his course topics and research, so I felt very prepared to prevent burnout.
During my graduate program, I grew passionate about working with substance use and offenders. I decided that my dream job would involve working in a correctional setting. Not long after graduation, I obtained a position working on a treatment team in a local detention facility. I remember the feelings of pride and excitement that I experienced upon finding out that I had gotten the position. I was ready to do what I thought I had been trained to do, which was to help people.
I began coming to work early and made sure I was the last person in the office to leave. I would spend time researching and planning out sessions and group topics. Each day on the way to and from work, I would think about creative interventions that I could use with clients. I bought a bunch of workbooks, read a ton of articles, printed out a variety of activities from the internet and even purchased art supplies, stress balls and play dough for my clients to use in meetings. I recall losing myself in sessions and feeling a high after meeting with a client or finishing a group.
I would sometimes stay late or come in early to meet with clients. When I found out that a client was in crisis or had just returned from a disappointing court hearing, I would routinely rearrange my schedule or add in another session spot, even if I didn’t really have the time or energy for it. If a client asked me to jump, I replied enthusiastically, “How high?”
About a year into my work, I felt lost and confused. I would like to say that I could pinpoint the moment when this shift occurred in me, but as with many things in life, it was more of a gradual, slow burn.
Of course I can remember defining moments that stood out to me, such as learning that a client with whom I had worked for six months had been sentenced to 16 years in prison for a nonviolent crime. I was in the hallway and saw him when he was walking back to his “pod” (the name for the housing communities in the jail). He stopped me and informed me of his prison sentence. I barely made it back to my office before I started sobbing. The news literally brought me to my knees.
Another moment also stands out to me. On one of the many nights when I was working late, I ran into a client in the hallway. This client said to me, “Jess, why are you staying late again? You need to take care of yourself and go home.” I pride myself on being a mirror for my clients, but the truth is that my clients are often my best mirrors and teachers — even if I don’t truly want to see what they are reflecting back to me.
Looking back on everything now, it seems obvious to me: I was so invested that I blurred my boundaries. I had so much empathy and compassion for my clients that I sometimes lost myself in those relationships. I wanted to help others first at the expense of helping myself.
As many of us know, however, when we are deep in the swamp, it can be difficult to see a way out. After all, there were times when the work still felt really rewarding. I could still experience little victories, such as when a client was able to voice change-talk or gain insight into the roots of his criminal behaviors. I held on to these moments for dear life because I was terrified of what I might discover if I let go and shifted the focus back to myself.
It took another year before I went from “crispy” to full-fledged burnout. My physical symptoms of burnout continued to worsen, so I sought therapy, just as I had many times before when things in my life became unmanageable. I realized in counseling that if I stayed in my current position, I might eventually hurt others like I was already hurting myself, so I resigned from my job.
I remember thinking that if only I could meditate enough, exercise enough, vacation enough, love enough, relax enough, then I would be OK. The problem with “enough” is that it never really feels like enough. I was too caught up in “doing” because I was afraid of what I would learn about myself in the “nondoing.”
After resigning from my job, I spent the next month traveling and reconnecting with myself. My journey took me to some amazing places, but, interestingly, the place that had the most profound effect on me was also the most unexpected.
I spent six days as a student at a Zen Buddhist monastery in Crestone, Colorado. Crestone is considered to be one of the most spiritual places in the world. The land was called the sacred center of North America by the native peoples, and tribal members would travel from all over the country to attend healing ceremonies in the valley. The Manitou Foundation has provided grants and financial support to religious and spiritual projects in Crestone, leading to 15 different spiritual centers putting down roots in the area, including ashrams, churches and monasteries. My schedule consisted of the following: wake up at 4 a.m., meditate for two hours, participate in morning service, eat breakfast in silence, engage in morning work practice, eat lunch in silence, engage in afternoon work practice, take a one-hour break, meditate again for two hours, repeat the next day.
At one point I remember thinking that I desperately wanted to get in my car and drive away, but I reminded myself that I had consciously chosen to be here and there was a lesson I needed to learn from this experience. In actuality, I learned many lessons in my six days there, but the one that stood out to me most was that I tend to give much more than I take in and receive from others. Others are waiting on the sidelines, ready to help me carry some of my burden, if only I will ask. Too often, I choose to smile, wave and run right past them.
Rising from the ashes
As counselors, our out-breath tends to be longer than our in-breath. We often feel it is easier to give than it is to receive, yet we need to give and receive in order not just to survive but thrive. We do difficult work each and every day, then offer pro bono services to clients when we are already stretched thin and barely covering our overhead. We volunteer our time and hearts for a worthy cause or a friend in need even when we have no remaining headspace or heart space.
When I feel sad, lonely, disappointed or powerless, I give because that is what I know how to do. But what I really need in those times is to seek and genuinely receive help from others. I would like to share a few ways I have discovered that I can receive from others that truly fill me up when I feel depleted.
Seeking community. Two years ago, a few therapists in our community came together to start a support group that we call a “sangha.” A sangha is a supportive community that meets regularly to share knowledge and practice skills to foster understanding, acceptance and awareness. We meet twice monthly for two hours total. I can honestly say that it has been one of my most rewarding, nourishing and sustaining experiences, both personally and professionally.
It is interesting that as helpers, we often preach the power of community and support groups to our clients, but we rarely engage in this type of group on our own. Nearly every time our sangha meets, we comment on the ability of this group to empower and uplift us. I have spoken with a number of therapists who share the same interest in starting a professional support group. I highly encourage counselors reading this article to begin talking to other interested professionals in their home areas. Consider starting your own group to receive the support, guidance and compassion of other healers.
Naming burnout. Whether it is during our own personal therapy or with other professionals, I think it is important to unpack our counseling experiences in a healthy way. We do incredibly difficult work, and we need a way to empty our cups when they are overflowing. I now surround myself with people who can hold space for the tough emotions and who want to help me carry some of my professional “stuff.”
As therapists, we can sometimes feel shame around voicing our feelings of compassion fatigue or burnout to others. We sometimes think these feelings mean we might be flawed because we are not able to take our own advice. However, I believe shame breads in secrecy. We need to share these experiences with others to take away the power they might have over us. We also need to be able to receive any feedback and insights that others might have for us during these vulnerable times. I encourage you to have an open conversation about burnout with your professors, mentors, supervisors or colleagues to reduce the stigma it holds for us as helping professionals.
Exploring spirituality. As I have mentioned, early on in my career, my idea of self-care was focused in “doing” rather than just “being.” This was a superficial view of self-care. I have since learned that self-care is so much more than the “doing” part.
The missing component in my self-care practice for many years was spirituality. When I added this to my practice, I felt free. My spirituality practice is a hybrid of many different ideologies and approaches, but finding what works best for you is most important.
I remember hearing that prayer is sending a message into the universe, whereas meditation is receiving a message from the universe. This has always stuck with me. There are times when I will sit down to meditate and I will just cry. Sometimes I am not even aware of an emotion until I sit down on my mat in stillness. Spirituality can ground you when you feel like you are floating away. It can humble you by reminding you that you are one tiny part of a vast system and universe. I believe there are many paths to the same destination, but I encourage you to explore and figure out the path that anchors you and allows you to receive whatever insights your practice offers.
Jim Morrison is attributed with saying, “You can’t burn out if you’re not on fire.” Often, we get into this work because we are wounded healers who are passionate about helping others. Passion is fire. If you are passionate about this work, then eventually you will catch on fire, but you ultimately get to choose whether you will burn out and fade away or rise from the ashes.
Jessica Smith is a licensed professional counselor and licensed addiction counselor in private practice in Denver. She is also a trauma-informed therapist who is trained in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing and yoga therapy. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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