I remember the first time my graduate school professors warned us about compassion fatigue and burnout in the helping professions. I was certain that burnout couldn’t happen to me in the early stages of my career, so I tucked their advice away as a reminder for when I became a seasoned counselor.
Of course, that wasn’t the reality for me. Within six months of my clinical internship, it was clear that I was about to become burnt out. Grad school had become unsustainable and I had not set good boundaries for myself to carry me through.
In a way, college and graduate school do not train any of us on how to care for ourselves. Regardless of our majors, earning advanced degrees teaches us that long nights, heavy course loads, unhealthy convenience foods and hermit behaviors are the way to success. Once we get out of school and start our careers, it can be challenging to unlearn the habits we picked up in the many years it took to earn our degrees.
These habits are no different for those of us in the helping professions. While our professors tried their best to help us, we still have to learn healthy behaviors for ourselves. Like so many others, I first had to learn to help myself before I could help others. Here are a couple of lessons I have learned along the way.
Knowing when “enough is enough”.
It’s tempting in any career to keep pursuing “more”. In the helping professions, this looks like taking on more clients, asking for more cases to manage, or taking on extra projects. It’s hard to say, “no,” when there are always more people that need our help. In addition to our clients, there are often friends and family that need our help.
We have to learn our capacity. This looks different for each person, but we all have a point where we’ve reached our highest level of effectiveness. If we find ourselves feeling stressed, short with others, or lacking compassion for the people we are helping, it may be a sign that we’ve reached our capacity. Once we get there, we have to trust ourselves to know what we can take on and be able to say, “not at this time,” to important things we want to do.
Holding the Line
Another important aspect of helping others is knowing how to hold the line between caring for others and caring for ourselves. It’s difficult to be empathetic toward others and provide them with the proper support that they need when we are not first doing these things for ourselves. Our physical health is incredibly important because it is difficult to focus on others when we feel hungry, tired, tense, or restless. It is also important to have our own support systems in place. We need friends and family that can be there for us at the end of a long day, even if we can’t tell them what we’re dealing with at work. Many of us also need our own therapists to help us build self-awareness and process our stress.
If you’re in a place where you feel stressed or burnout, a therapist can help you create a plan to move forward. As a therapist, I can help you learn how to manage your capacity and set healthy boundaries for yourself. Call today!