Therapists often talk with patients about boundaries. They’re meant to protect us and our energy, to help shape the contours of a sustainable life. In focusing great energy on supporting our patients in being able to implement their boundaries, we often run the risk of forgetting our own. Without boundaries, our energy will run out.
Vicarious trauma rises to the surface when our energy levels drop. With the heavy emotions, we collaboratively hold with our patients bogging us down, the way we view ourselves, the world, and our work changes. We may begin to view our patients as energy vampires, and at our worst, we may even come to resent them. These feelings can then spread to our family and friends as well; the thought of adding another video chat, phone call, or in-person hangout at the end of a day of sessions can feel overwhelming. We run the risk of coming across as distant or uncaring. When family and friends protest our boundaries, our empathic selves can fall victim to guilt and shame. We may let our boundaries go to appease our family and friends, which only feeds the cycle further. We may feel trapped and even question our choice to be in the profession, to begin with, especially when considering the exorbitant cost of grad school as well as the often disappointing rates at which clinicians are compensated.
Lessons on maintaining boundaries are instilled in most clinicians from the beginning of grad school. These are cautions that logically make sense, but in practice can be difficult to maintain. Boundaries are not something that we master once, but over and over again throughout our lifetime. Each period of our life will bring with it unique external factors that inform how we show up in session and how we extend our energy, and so our boundaries will subsequently ebb and flow. It’s best to accept that naming, implementing, and maintaining boundaries is a life-long project, and it’s okay to need to relearn how to do this over and over again. These are the reminders that play in my head on the days where I just don’t want to be a therapist anymore.
It sounds simple, but when I truly accomplish this, I realize how rare it is for me to slow down. I’ll notice things like finishing my food quickly at meals because I’m used to scarfing down food in between sessions. When I’m outside, I notice I tend to walk fast. Intentionally doing things slowly is an excellent mindfulness practice that I find helps me feel more like myself, which helps me want to be a therapist again. This practice helps you connect with gratitude, which can help combat burnout.
A practice I’ve noticed that helps me feel refreshed is to find a quiet, dark space to inhabit quietly for a small period of time. Sometimes when I have a break, I’m tempted to turn on music or catch up on the news. However, I’ve learned that this bogs my brain down further and leaves me more tired after my break than when I started. Carving out a time and space to just be with as little stimulation as possible helps my brain reset. It feels like I’m closing out all the unnecessary tabs on an overloaded computer, which helps me feel prepared to be a therapist again.
The nature of our work requires that we center our patients. When you add up the hours we work, plus all the ways we show up for our friends and family, it adds up to a lot of hours operating in service of others. Centering yourself is essential to combating burnout. It means allowing yourself to be taken care of. This can look like dialing into friendships that are balanced, healthy, and promote your growth and healing. It can look like time spent alone even when others are vying for time with you. Sometimes even just having your own therapist is a great way to have built-in time each week where you are centered and taken care of. Therapists need therapists too!
In my experience, these three practices are excellent ingredients to combating burnout and restoring my ability to be a therapist. I hope they can help you, too! Also, if you’re a gold member, check out another PsychoSocial article focused on burnout and vicarious trauma by clicking here.
Rainn is a gender-non conforming, queer, Latinx psychotherapist and author from Chicago, Illinois.
They live in Uptown where they enjoy swimming at the beach, walks along the lake, and day dreaming about Siberian Huskies.
Their gender pronouns are They/Them.