Out On The Couch
Being an affirmative psychotherapist is an important job. It’s easy to get caught up in caring for others and overlook your own well-being. While doing psychotherapy may be seen as “selfless,” it should never be “self-sacrificing.” For your sake, and for the sake of your clients, it is crucial to take a step back and focus on your own needs and develop a self-care practice.
The Symptoms of Burnout
First and foremost, recognizing the symptoms of burnout is crucial to mitigating it. Burnout can be unique from person to person, but some common signs include anxiety, apathy, mental and physical exhaustion, depression, and trouble concentrating. As a therapist, you may also notice that you start to depersonalize your clients. Instead of seeing them as people, you start to see them as “cases” or another “job” to complete. This is a sign that you are likely overburdened, overwhelmed, and overtaxed. If you notice any of these symptoms, it’s time to pause and focus on self-care.
What Does Self-Care Mean to You?
Simply put, self-care is the practice of taking an active role in protecting our own well-being and happiness, which is particularly important during periods of stress. But, because we are all beautifully unique, self-care means different things to different people. For some, it means immersing themselves in a hobby. For others, it’s spending time with family and friends. What does it mean to you? Find what works for you and roll with it. Make it part of your weekly or daily routine rather than something that gets added when you have time.
Self-care does not need to only happen outside of work, either. Taking care of yourself at work might mean tailoring your schedule so that you have more breaks, more (or less) socialization with coworkers, a slower pace, or even more snacks (never doubt the power of blood sugar!). If you are a manager or a supervisor, self-care might mean delegating tasks that regularly drain you. Our culture tends to encourage “the hustle,” which brings with it an unhealthy drive to work more hours and be as productive as we possibly can. This is an easy recipe for burnout.
Self-care requires that we stop focusing on other people’s ideas about how we should work, and instead listen to our physical, mental, and emotional needs. What pace works for you? Once you figure out what self-care means to you, you can take the steps to set boundaries around your personal needs.
Here are five essential self-care tips for psychotherapists and other mental health professionals.
Take a Self-Care Day
Revolutionary, I know! But if you’re feeling burned out, don’t force yourself to work through it. Burnout grows stronger the longer you leave it to fester. Instead, you can just… take a break. Call out of work for a day, spend a weekend doing what you love, or set aside a few minutes for a breather. The world will not stop turning if you disengage from your work for a bit. I know that the loss of hours and income can be a scary prospect, especially when finances are tight. But you will be a more productive and capable worker in the long run if you take the time now to prioritize your own wellbeing. Promise!
Know You’re Not Alone
The next essential self-care tip for psychotherapists is to know you’re not alone! Every therapist experiences burnout at some point in their career. Don’t be afraid to reach out. Get consultation or supervision. Call your loved ones. Lean on your coworkers, or find and join a support group. Seek professional help when you need it. People like your supervisor or even your own therapist are there to help you manage the stress in your life. It may feel vulnerable to tell a colleague that you are overwhelmed, but trusting and allowing others to hold space for us can be life changing.
Never forget the power of community support when it comes to self-care and personal wellbeing. Finding a group of folks whose struggles are similar to yours can have a dramatic impact on your health and help lighten your emotional load.
Know You’re Not at Fault
Society can put pressure on us as individuals to manage our mental health. Often societal pressure is often what’s causing us to feel burned out in the first place. Hustle culture, productivity requirements, comparing yourself to other therapists… it’s easy to get overwhelmed by trying to meet others’ expectations. Self-care can ease feelings of anxiety, depression, and stress, but it won’t eliminate them. At the end of the day, a bubble bath won’t be able to address your burnout, though it might help you feel more relaxed, or give you the clarity of mind to email your boss and ask to adjust your schedule. Maybe that little moment of thoughtful self-maintenance is what you needed to finally focus on your personal wellbeing and reflect on what other changes (both personal and systemic) are necessary. Trying a new face mask can’t solve life’s big problems, but it can be a soothing reminder to slow down and prioritize yourself.
Community Care as Self Care at Work
Maybe this will require talking to your boss (or maybe you are the boss!), and you fear the potential repercussions for not “pulling your weight” or being a “team player.” The truth is, research supports the idea that employers who allow workers to use 20 percent of their time to work on projects that excite them reduce their employees’ burnout (Pink, 2011). This is an opportunity for affirmative psychotherapists to “practice what we preach” and meaningfully adjust our work environments to support everyone’s wellbeing. We all do better work when we work the way that’s best for us. Advocating for what works best for you not only helps you personally, but helps create more possibilities for others as well.
Finally, it is important to say that as affirmative therapists, our work also gets more stressful when our lives become politicized. When legislation surfaces that oppresses our bodies and our loved ones, when people whose identities we share are victims of hate crimes, when hate speech gets lifted up by influential figures, our work can become harder as we manage our own responses to society while caring for our clients.
Political Advocacy Practices
There’s nothing wrong with practicing self-care to relieve stress, but know that it can’t solve everything. In the face of systemic oppression, a lack of self-care may not be the reason you’re feeling anxious, depressed, or exhausted. Maybe it’s something deeper, perhaps related to living in the chaos of the world today. As an affirmative psychotherapist, the work you do as a clinician must also be matched with a willingness to engage in political advocacy. It is important for you to take care of yourself so that you can continue doing this valuable work for yourself and for others.
We can’t change society with the snap of a finger, but we can take strides toward making it a safer, happier, and more inclusive place. As an affirmative psychotherapist, you’re part of the solution! The Affirmative Couch offers affirmative psychotherapy courses for psychotherapists seeking training on clinical work with CNM, kink, and LGBTQIA+ communities. By pursuing continued education, you can make your office a welcoming space for all.
Learn More from our Courses:
Pink, D. H. (2011). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. Riverhead Books.