Being a psychotherapist is one of the strangest and most amazing jobs on the planet. People come to you and share things that they’ve, many times, never shared with anyone. They tell you about unspoken traumas and hurts that they’ve carried for years, they tell you about struggles in personal identity, their deepest wounds, and their insecurities. They tell you, a stranger, the things that they haven’t told their friends, family, or spouses.
It’s an honor and a privilege to hold that space and to be let in by another human being.
In order to help those who are struggling with emotional or mental health issues there are things that we, helping professionals, have to do in order to stay healthy ourselves.
Sometimes this balance gets skewed. Sometimes we have our own “stuff” going on that makes compartmentalization and offering presence to someone else’s pain more difficult.
There’s a notion that therapists become jaded. I’ve seen it happen, and it’s often fueled by burnout. Secondary trauma is a real thing, and being exposed to heartbreak and suffering for 8 hours everyday is not for the faint of heart. You can imagine that these stories can build over weeks, months, and years, and unless you practice emotional health on a daily basis, burn-out and emotional dysregulation are inevitable.
A few weeks ago, I had a very difficult case that left me feeling emotionally drained. I found it more difficult to be emotionally present with those who I was working with because I was emotionally tapped out.
So...what do therapists, who know all the CBT, coping skills, mindfulness practices, and strategies for emotional regulation actually use in their daily lives to keep emotionally healthy? How do we get back on track after difficult cases?
I’ve interviewed several therapists who have been in the field for a number of years (some now retired) and compiled a list that is not only helpful for therapists, but for anyone looking for ways to stay emotionally, spiritually, and mentally strong and healthy. Take a look!
They go to therapy when they need to.
They take medication if they need it. Hormonal changes, genetic predispositions, and chemical imbalances are real things. Medications can be very helpful, especially when used in combination with psychotherapy and some of the healthy practices listed below.
They are protective of their time off. We can’t always control who we spend our time with, but setting emotional boundaries IS A MUST. It’s difficult to spend 8 hours a day counseling others and then to also do that on your time off. Friendship is full of ups and downs, and it’s important to be there for friends and loved ones in good times and bad, but it’s also important to know that you cannot fix something that is a consistent problem for someone. Only they can fix their problem, SO it’s okay to be protective of your emotional energy if there are people who consistently drain it.
They develop a daily ritual. This might look like journaling in the morning, making a cup of coffee or tea, a daily gratitude practice, reading, prayer, yoga, meditation, or just a moment of silence each morning in the car before work to check in emotionally.
They develop a practice for letting go. One therapist I know has a long commute after work. She gives herself that hour drive home to decompress and think about her patients and the day, but mentally shuts it off when she gets out of the car. Another therapist I know prays after each patient leaves. She says, “it’s the ultimate thing I can do for a client, and once it’s in God’s hands, I let it go.” For non-therapists, can you develop a practice to let go of the frustrating meeting or call? Finding ways to leave work at work helps to protect the other areas of our lives.
They leave work at the office. Sometimes deadlines are unavoidable, but finishing progress notes at your home after work or on the weekends is a recipe for burnout. The same goes for just about any job. Set a quitting time. Give yourself time to turn it off each day.
They watch comedies. I love a good psychological thriller, but sometimes a comedy and laughing to release those endogenous endorphins is the best medicine. Being protective of what we consume is helpful, especially if you, like me, have a sensitive disposition or are empathic.
They listen to podcasts and read books that have nothing to do with their day job.
They move their bodies. Almost all the therapists I spoke with mentioned some form of exercise or movement. Many mentioned yoga. I'm a fan of any kind of movement that gets me sweating and being outdoors.
They spend time in nature.
They volunteer or participate in hobbies that have NOTHING to do with their regular job or the populations they serve. One psychologist I know volunteers for an organization that teaches climbing and environmental sustainability, which are two of his passions.
They seek supervision, whether they are provisionally licensed (in which case it is mandatory), or not. For us therapists, supervision is a time to seek counsel and support on difficult cases, to discuss what it triggers for us, and to ensure ethical responsibility. For those of you who are NOT therapists, consider seeking consultation from a mentor, supervisor, or colleague. Getting support and counsel from those who have experience and understand what you are experiencing is tremendously helpful. This is often lost in our culture where independence and the illusion of competence are king.
They try to eat well and stay hydrated. I won't go into detail here, but as adults most of us know the foods that drain us and the foods that sustain us. In times of stress we tend to gravitate to the former becuase they provide instant escape and satisfaction. If you find yourself doing that, just try to balance it out with a tall glass of water and some food that will also sustain you.
They take breaks from social media. I've had a lot of therapists and empaths tell me how draining social media can be. Taking a break for a few days, a month, or permanently can give back energy you didn't realize was being sucked out.
They spend time with pets.
They Create. Whether you enjoy playing guitar, doodling, writing, or carpentry, having an outlet where you are making something can be incredibly powerful.
They ask for help. It's difficult for all of us, therapist or not, to ask for help when we are struggling.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it does reflect many common threads that practiced by those whose job it is to be emotionally healthy. Does something on the list intrigue you? Try your hand at creating, spend time making a fuss over fido, or try creating a ritual each day to check in with yourself.
I hope this list gives you some ideas for ways to create a bit of peace.