A few years ago, I managed the most complicated case of my professional career. I was serving as an adviser to an agency, and this case required me to manage HIPAA, ethics, confidentiality, supervision, competency in practice, dual relationships, intrusive intervention, the law, risk assessment and a host of other issues that would have been a challenge by themselves. Dealing with all of them at the same time was nearly overwhelming. I couldn’t have managed that case 20 years ago. Most likely, I wouldn’t even have known where to start.
The case wore me out physically and mentally. For more than two weeks, there was something to do every single day — a phone call with the agency, the client, the care providers, colleagues for consultation, and attorneys. Some days I drained my cell phone battery searching through the ACA Code of Ethics, which I always have available to me on my phone.
I worried about the client, potential lawsuits, ethics and my license. I second-guessed myself often, not in a bad way, but just double- and triple-checking my decisions to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. At times I dreaded answering the phone or checking my email. But in the midst of it all, I remembered my own words to my students and supervisees: “If it were easy, anyone could do it.”
I’m closing in on the end of my career, and retirement is never far from my mind. Challenges like the case I just mentioned could easily be the catalyst that drives some people to hang up their hat and retire, but the effect on me is just the opposite. I love what I do, and these types of challenges keep me in the game. With confidence I can say, “I got this!”
I’ve written in the past that I don’t believe burnout exists. In brief, people burn out when they either never had the passion for the job to begin with or when they let the challenges of the job smother the passion they had in the beginning. The former can’t be burnout since there was no flame to start with. The latter can be repaired by reframing or adjusting one’s job to limit the clutter and renewing that passion.
We all face challenges in our career, but when the job gets hard, that is when I am most energized. A newly licensed clinician can manage the easy stuff in the profession. The older and more experienced I get, the better I am at my work, and without challenges, I wouldn’t be doing anything that I couldn’t have done 20 years ago. That is when boredom sets in.
I was a soccer referee for many years and retired from the game as a professional referee doing national and international games. At some point in my career as a referee, I decided I didn’t want to be just another average referee, so I began my journey into the big leagues. I marveled as I watched the very best referees in the game manage exceedingly challenging matches.
I didn’t know if I could ever do that. But as I developed and trained, and as I learned and improved, I made it. I often had butterflies in my stomach as I prepared to blow the kickoff whistle, knowing there were young referees in the stands watching me, just as I had done with other referees many years earlier. There is great energy in professionalism.
As a retired referee, I sometimes reminisce with friends about tough games, mistakes I made, and challenges I faced well. That brings me happiness, and I suppose that is some of what Erikson meant when he taught us about the last two stages in psychosocial theory — generativity versus stagnation and integrity versus despair. I “generated” something valuable, and that brought me to a place of integrity.
The point here is to encourage young clinicians to seek challenges that force you to grow. Don’t be just another average referee — so to speak. And for those of you in the middle or later stages of your career, don’t let challenges drive you prematurely into retirement or out of the profession altogether. You have arrived, and new clinicians need to watch and learn from you.
We get to a place like this by seeking challenges rather than avoiding them. We master our craft by working with the hardest clients, facing the most difficult ethical problems and pushing ourselves professionally in every area.
As the old saying goes, “steel sharpens steel.” You will never sharpen a knife with a soft piece of wood, and you will never sharpen your skills by taking the path of least resistance. You got this!
Gregory K. Moffatt is a veteran counselor of more than 30 years and the dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Point University. His monthly Voice of Experience column for CT Online seeks to share theory, ethics and practice lessons learned from his diverse career, as well as inspiration for today’s counseling professionals, whether they are just starting out or have been practicing for many years. His experience includes three decades of work with children, trauma and abuse, as well as a variety of other experiences, including work with schools, businesses and law enforcement. Contact him at Greg.Moffatt@point.edu.
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.