Counseling as a profession isn’t one of those employments that people just ‘fall’ into. It takes a special breed and typically our background consists of having been some type of caretaker in the past. For me, it was taking care of my mom. See, my bio-dad died in a motorcycle crash when I was 3 and although mom remarried again when I was 6, I took care of her. Not blaming; explaining.
Who knows when it started but by the time I was in my twenties, it was normal for me to drop everything and help whenever she needed anything done around the house. Maybe it was the 2 year hiatus my step-dad took when he moved to Texas to get his nursing degree…I was around 12 or so and was suddenly the “man of the house”, chopping the wood, doing all the chores, watching my little sisters, etc. Whatever started my care-giving habit doesn’t really matter – it’s just something that’s good to know about people who choose being a therapist as a career.
Another behavioral attribute is more of something we’re born with and is quite unexplainable to me; we see dead people. JOKING - it's ok to laugh. Thankfully people just talk to us. We’re the ones that – for WHATEVER reason, people have always just told us things and not in a dramatic way. For me, this really became evident when I was in high school and my friends would just tell me things about them out of the blue. Random, odd stories that were pretty personal and I often thought, “why are they telling me this? Still, I listened and most of the time, didn’t say a thing. Maybe it’s a super-power that helps people feel safe but whatever you want to call it, people feel comfortable communicating personal things to us. We hear things like, “you’re just easy to talk to” or, “I don’t know why I’m telling you this” or my favorite, “can I run something by you?”
This superpower comes with a price. Unlike a job where you run numbers, cook, serve, market, sale, educate, drive a car, farm, build homes, etc. a therapist gets to quietly LISTEN while connecting emotionally with someone who’s working through very hurtful experiences. We’re talking rape, divorce, death, infidelity, betrayal, grief, loss, pain and the like. And here’s the thing, that stuff doesn’t just ‘wash off’ the person that hears it. Here, think of it this way, you know when you watch a show that leaves you feeling disturbed, uneasy or sad RIGHT BEFORE IT’S TIME TO GO TO BED? You know as well as I do that right away, you find a comedy to watch so you can fall asleep! Well, that’s what it’s like being a therapist – not the comedy part. Which reminds me, never watch "Oldboy".
Vicarious trauma is the term for it. You experienced it watching that jacked up show because and it’s quite normal. What isn’t normal is tapping into it emotionally over and over and over again. In fact, statistically speaking 1 in 5 mental health (20 percent) providers have suicidal thoughts and the number who take their own lives is twice that of the general population. Ends up we are at high risk for feeling overwhelmed which is why it’s so important to have emotional boundaries and to figure out what your own warning signs are.
Personally, I’ve got this on lock. Having worked in this field for over 25 years and a licensed professional for almost 10, I’m able to recognize my own red flags. It’s important to know these indicators and that’s a whole other article but for fun, I know when I’m getting out of the healthy area when my back starts hurting during sessions. I know it’s weird but it makes sense if you think about it. When this happens, I’ve learned to do some breathing exercises and then I back off from being a therapist for a bit. Oh, I still do therapy – just not as much.
Do you ever wonder how much your therapist works? Get out of that egocentric brain of yours and ponder it for a second…could it be that they work more than the hour they’re with you? Surprise, they are! Not only are they continuing to work through your session topic by charting for 15-30 minutes, they’ve got a bunch of other clients to see! Then they do groups for hours on end and then they do more individual sessions and then they deal with work drama (typically) which puts them past the 40 hour a week mark. When I was the rat running on that wheel, I’d tell my clients that if they wanted the best of me, SCHEDULE ON TUESDAY. You may laugh but again, it makes sense; On Monday you’re still getting into work mode so by Tuesday you’re aces…and by Thursday we’re emotionally spent so by Friday we’re running on fumes (or we’ve stalled out and are faking it). The only reason people even say “TGIF” is because they’re out of gas. Sound familiar?
How anyone who employs a therapist expects them to be a ‘good’ therapist while working them 40 hours a week is beyond me. Think of it like this; you live in Salt Lake City and you need to drive ten and a half hours to San Diego, over 600 miles – with 1 tank of gas. It just isn’t possible unless you break up the drive and get gas which is the equivalent of working a 4 hour day vs. the 8 hour day. Being an effective therapist takes lot of emotional fuel. OR, maybe they’re a unique breed of bipolar II – believe it or not, there are a very small percentage of this population that has a much longer level of mania to depression ration than normal Bipolar II’s. I actually have a high school buddy who has this superpower. He’s able to run with high energy on 2-3 hours of sleep nightly. But that is the VERY rare off-shoot and believe me, your therapist probably isn’t that. If they were, look for them to have created a therapeutic empire by the age of 35 because while everyone else is sleeping (literally), they are up and making it happen. Looking at you Kerwin Rae. Those people are the Sport Prius but way cooler. Alas, I’m getting off topic. Point is – there’s such a thing as compassion fatigue and how can therapists NOT burn out running a 40 hour week?
Here’s the truth; Counselors shouldn’t be therapatizing more than 20 hours a week. There, I said it. Now that I’m free of the full-time employment haze, I can see it more clearly. You may not if you’re still on the wheel but believe me – if you’re doing therapy, you’re not at your best and your client needs your best. Running my own business has given me the freedom to max out my week at 20 hours of sessions…which is pushing it, if you want me to be honest. 17 hours of sessions is the sweet spot for me. I’ll say it again; therapists need to see less people so they can give what the client needs emotionally and stay -not dead- or burned out while contemplating taking a long drive and never...coming back.
This may not be easy for a therapist to read especially if they’re dependent on their full-time job financially. If that’s you, ease up – I’m not saying you’re a bad therapist. I’m just worried about you - DAMN my caretaking! That said, pace yourself. Balance of life is good and when you’re able – unplug. And not just the ‘kind of’ unplug you're used to. I’m talking no cell phones, no being ‘on call’, no giving advice to other people, NOTHING. Bob Kelso it. Lastly, remember the great Dickie Fox who said, “They key to this business is personal relationships.” Fewer clients, less money. I’m expecting your Jerry Maguire mission statements by Monday.
Be well my fellow humans and God Bless you.
Jed Thorpe, CMHC