The Burned Out Therapist

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Thanksgiving couldn’t have come at a better time. I still have to go to work on Monday and Tuesday, but after that I have five glorious days of publicly sanctioned absence from work. It’s time for a break. I can feel it.

It has been almost twenty years that I have been in my career as a therapist and over that time I have realized that at least twice a year I get to a point where I begin to feel burned out. The struggles of other people overwhelm me. The frustration of people wanting help but not working in between sessions to change their lives mounts. And self-doubt begins to creep in as I perform my biannual ritual of self-reflection and wonder if there is a better, more systematic way of communicating how to effect change in a person’s life or marriage.

This is one of those times.

There is truth, I know, in the old joke that it only takes one therapist to change a light bulb, but the light bulb has to want to change. But it doesn’t make it any easier when week after week people come in and have the same struggles in the same ways  with the same people, despite us agreeing one to two weeks ago about they need to, and are willing, to do differently. In moments like that, I feel as if the therapist-client relationship looks a lot like this:

But instead of walking away or mentally checking out, I take a deep breath and try to restate the healthy way of living — AGAIN — in a new way. A way that I hope will finally, this time, resonate with the person sitting across from me and motivate them to move towards change.

Sometimes that means I have to get firm; sometimes I give an analogy; sometimes I take an empathetic approach; or if the client is completely recalcitrant, I fire them. (Yes, you can do that as a counselor.) I give them referrals, if they desire it, but I make it clear that I cannot help them any longer and what they will need to do, if they decide to continue counseling with someone else. Fortunately, it doesn’t usually come to that.

That is why I am most thankful this year for…

a break.

I am tired of people coming to me, asking for my guidance, and then not making the conscientious, deliberate effort to change. I don’t think I have all the answers to the problems that walk through my door. That would be arrogant. But I do think that if you have dedicated yourself to taking the time off of work to come to a place where you discuss the darkest areas of your life with a stranger, because you believe that stranger has some professional level of expertise that can help you, then at least do what the professional suggests. And if you don’t know how to implement the suggestions, ask.

It’s okay.

Really.

We won’t think you’re stupid or look down on you because you don’t understand the process. As in your career, there are terms within therapy that come with an underlying set of assumptions, ideas, or behaviors. We therapists understand this subtext automatically (because we’re in the field) but clients often do not. For instance, when we say “communicate,” we do not mean “just sit down and talk to each other nicely.” There is more to it than that. Make sure you understand so you can go practice the skills effectively. And if it is too overwhelming, if it’s too much information to remember to do all at once, tell us. We will tailor it so you can handle it piece by piece.

I can’t speak for all therapists, but as for me, I believe in my clients. I want to treat them like adults. I do not want to play judge/jury between you and your spouse. I understand, even if you don’t,  that you do not need help resolving the weed in your life, but the roots of the weed instead. In other words, I am not here to resolve your situation, but to help you resolve the emotions fueling your behavior/situation.  I am here to help you think about things in a fresh way, but I also trust you to be an adult.

This means:

  1. Although you may prefer a step by step process, therapy will not always work this way. Often, I will present ideas and concepts and trust you as an adult to develop (either on your own or with me) ways to implement this counsel.
  2. Together we can work on resolving your problems. But I cannot drag you across the finish line. In fact, after twenty years of trying to help resistant people, I refuse to play that game any longer. If you want help, be an active participant in the process. Don’t just passively receive information and expect transformation. It doesn’t work that way. It can’t.
  3. You have to daily, diligently apply what you learn, so that new behaviors and new ways of thinking/perceiving can be written into your life. Be intentional about what you are doing.
  4. “Trying” is never enough, for it usually includes one or two efforts that give up after meeting with resistance. Instead, you must courageously and honestly ask yourself if the pain of changing is worse than the pain of staying the same.
  5. Be 100% honest and transparent. You cannot get better if you are hiding an addiction, shameful behavior, or other vital information that you want to deny or excuse. This only wastes time in therapy and keeps you acting like a child trying to avoid punishment. Be an adult. Own your stuff. Then crack it open and explore what lies beneath.

If you can do this on your end, I promise to do this on my end. Then maybe both of us can have something new to be thankful for at this time next year.

The Opposite of Anger

About a year ago, I was asked to speak to a group of young men in juvenile detention regarding anger management. During my talk, I asked them the questions: Do you like living in prison? Or do you want to be free?  Continue reading

How to Love Like Spam

Spam. We all get it. We all hate it. We rarely read it. Yet, I never expected to learn anything from it. The other day I received an unwanted email from Men’s Health magazine. The subject line read “Leave Her Begging for More.” Like you, I did not need to open the email to know what they were selling, but I have to admit, the title caught my eye. Continue reading

Living?

I started this blog about 6-8 weeks ago at the encouragement of my wife. For most of my life I have wanted to be a writer, but work, responsibilities, and fear of failure intercepted my dreams on a regular basis. This venue, though, allows me to write regularly and begin the discipline that I have so long excused away.

As you know, I named my blog “Living in the Tent.” The idea was to write entries that highlighted how to live in dependency upon God in the various areas of our lives. Continue reading

Apologizing Without Being Apologetic

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In 1985, hidden beneath my sister’s old Billy Joel and Eagles albums, I found an LP with a picture of a lone man refusing to bow down to a monarch being carried through the streets. The body guard of this king is pointing an accusing finger at this rebel, making it clear that he will suffer for his crime. The title of this record was “No Compromise” by Keith Green. I knew nothing of this artist at the time, but I remembered my older sister listening to his music and reading his magazine, so I thought I’d pop the album on and give it a whirl. Continue reading

How to Argue Without Getting Stupid

If you are in any type of relationship and you have found yourself getting into stupid arguments over stupid things, then you have probably sought out advice in some form (books, friends, magazine articles, pastors, counselors, etc) to help you with this issue. The problem with most advice, though, is that it primarily focuses on what NOT to do. Those suggestions are helpful, I’m sure, but I have found that telling people what not to do is usually counterproductive. Continue reading

Lessons from Vacation – The Hike

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Three years ago I lost the weight of the Christmas tree at the top of our stairs. The box went right as my leg tried to pivot left towards the attic, and two seconds later I grimaced in pain as I felt my knee pop out of then quickly back into its socket. A few months later, the orthopedic surgeon removed 60% of my meniscus. To this day I still think I can still play tennis, jog, etc., until my knee not so subtly reminds me it has less than half of its cushion remaining between my femur and my tibia. Admittedly I am a stubborn learner Continue reading