Therapist Burnout Is A Reality For Many of Us – Especially Now
Therapists are experts in helping people deal with stress, overwhelm, and burnout. So why do so many therapists find themselves feeling discouraged, frustrated, or even disengaged at times? Because “therapist burnout” is real, and it’s rampant in our field right now.
Reasons Behind Therapist Burnout
Most of us are drawn to this profession because we want to help others heal. We feel an intrinsic pull to hold space for our clients, meet them where they’re at, and offer a bottomless well of empathy and unconditional positive regard. These motivators can lead some of us to engage in burnout-inducing behaviors. Like going above and beyond for clients, having difficulty setting boundaries with clients or in their schedule, or feeling a personal responsibility for clients’ problems.
We also suffer from therapist burnout because some of the systemic issues in our field, such as underfunding, understaffing, and insurance challenges, require us to stretch beyond our emotional and physical capabilities regularly. I would also include the arduous journey to licensure as another reason why we’re ripe for burnout. The process just to get licensed is difficult and saddled with high expectations, demanding schedules, and low wages.
I think it’s fair to say that though we all understand why therapist burnout happens, we can’t always identify when we’re feeling it (which is exactly why I wrote this article). Here are six common indicators you might be struggling with therapist burnout.
6 Signs You’re Suffering From Therapist Burnout
1. You Dread Going to Work Every Morning:
When you first became a therapist, you probably popped out of bed every morning excited to start the day and see your clients. Now, you stay in bed as long as you can and try to think of reasons to cancel your clients for the day. If you find yourself stalling at home and reluctant to start your workday, you’re likely experiencing therapist burnout.
2. You Secretly Hope Your Clients Will Cancel:
Therapists can feel an unwavering level of commitment to our role, which can make us feel guilty for taking time off. But as we tell our clients, time off is healthy and necessary for rest and rejuvenation. Secretly wishing for client cancellations is a good indication that therapist burnout might be on the horizon and that you might be in need of a break.
3. You Find Yourself Angry, Resentful, or Annoyed With Your Clients (All the Time):
It’s not unusual to have one or two clients who push your buttons. But if you’re getting irritated, having judgmental thoughts, or lacking in empathy for most of your caseload, you’re probably suffering from therapist burnout.
4. You Feel Cynical About Your Work:
You would be hard-pressed to find a field with people more passionate about their work than therapists – we believe in the nature of therapy to our core. When we doubt that change is possible, question the impact of the therapeutic process, or lose faith in therapy entirely, that is a major indication that we’re experiencing therapist burnout pretty significantly.
5. You Fantasize About Changing Your Career:
At one point in your life, you likely fantasized about becoming a therapist. You worked hard, got licensed, and began your career. Now, if you wish you were doing anything but therapy as a job, it’s time to do some self-reflection about why you’re so burnt out.
6. You Just Don’t Enjoy Being a Therapist Anymore:
Being a therapist takes a lot of emotional investment every day. It’s a demanding role that can be very rewarding as well. If you’re not connecting with a sense of passion or reward in your role anymore, it’s probably time to make some changes to help you cope with therapist burnout.
I Have Therapist Burnout – So What Now?
Now that you’ve (hopefully) been able to identify if you’re experiencing therapist burnout, you’re probably asking yourself, “What do I do now?” In my experience, the antidote to therapist burnout has two key ingredients: time and change. When I’m working with a therapist who’s experiencing burnout, I always encourage them to focus on these three things.
Recognize it, Name it, and Honor it:
As therapists, we’re often reluctant to acknowledge our own feelings related to our job. So much of our identity is related to being a caring and empathic person, and we “should” all over ourselves when we have normal human experiences (like burnout).
As Dan Siegel says, we have to name it to tame it. When you’re feeling burnout as a therapist, use your therapy skills on yourself:
- Recognize what you’re feeling
- Understand that it’s sending you a message about your current state right now
- Label it as burnout
- Honor the part of you that is feeling exhausted
Repeat this process as long as necessary.
Practice Self-care Like Your Life Depended on it:
Ironically, self-care isn’t always a high priority for people in helping professions. You might be able to function with limited self-care for a while, but when you’re facing burnout self-care is a necessity.
When I say “self-care”, I don’t mean luxurious spa days and grandiose trips. I quite literally mean doing the minimum needed to take care of yourself. Make sure you are getting your body’s basic needs met:
- Eat properly and regularly – carve out time for meal breaks for yourself in your schedule and have some snacks on hand that you can munch on between sessions
- Drink enough water – have a water bottle with you that you can keep with you and refill throughout the day
- Get enough sleep – follow a sleep schedule and practice a nighttime routine to help you prepare for bed each night (as tempting as it is to stay up late and binge Netflix every night, that’s not helpful to fighting therapist burnout)
- Move your body everyday – daily exercise will help boost your endorphins and get the blood flowing, which will give you a natural boost in energy and elevate your mood (as therapists, we know this – we just don’t always apply it to ourselves!)
Figure Out What You Can Change (and Then Change it):
No matter how much you hope, therapist burnout won’t magically go away on its own. The fact is that you’re experiencing burnout as a therapist for a reason – the burnout is there to tell you that something needs to change.
It could be that you need to make a number of small changes to overcome burnout. Setting firm (or firmer) boundaries with clients, adjusting your schedule to allow for more personal time, or taking a few days off might be enough to help you bounce back. Or, you might need to make one or two bigger changes, like changing your niche or specialty, revamping systems and processes (for those in private practice), or even looking for a different clinical job.
Don’t Give Up. You Can Overcome Therapist Burnout.
It’s important to remember that you became a therapist for a reason – don’t let your burnout steal your passion and enthusiasm for your work. If you’re feeling burned out as a therapist, don’t give up. There are things you can do to overcome it, and there is help out there.
Overcoming therapist burnout isn’t easy, which is why I highly recommend seeking your own therapy or coaching for professional guidance during this time. Seeking therapy or coaching can help you sort out your feelings and identify what’s causing your burnout, while also helping you brainstorm changes you can make to overcome it.
Change is possible and will help you find your way again.
Babita Spinelli LP, JD
Babita is a Licensed Psychotherapist/Psychoanalyst, Certified Relationship Coach, and Speaker. She is the founder and CEO of Opening the Doors Psychotherapy and Babita Spinelli Group. Babita works with individuals and couples and her practice has locations in NYC, NJ, and Florida. As the recipient of the 2019 New York Psychotherapist Award, Babita features frequently in prominent media outlets such as Forbes, Insider, Washington Post, and Mind Body Green as a relationship expert. She is a Certified Gottman Level 2 Therapist, Certified Collaborative Divorce Coach, and Parent Coordinator. Her specialties include infidelity, narcissist abuse support, divorce recovery, multi-cultural couples, and career transitions. For all Babita’s latest news follow her on Facebook and Instagram.