It’s a marathon and not a sprint: Burnout prevention

Posted in What a Therapist's Life is like, What it is like to do therapy
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I am a burnout survivor. After 4 years of emotionally depleting myself as a youth pastor I was certain I could never work with people again. I crawled off to graduate school to figure out what happened to me. Interestingly I did my master’s thesis on “Emotional Burnout in Youth Workers.” That study was the beginning of figuring out how to help others while keeping myself intact.

Boundaries. Who is responsible for what

I had a supervisor whose rule-of-thumb was “Don’t work harder than anyone else in the room.” What he was saying that we cannot be responsible for a lack of motivation in those we are trying to help.

In large part my burnout was due to my enormous confusion about boundaries. I was not clear who was responsible for what. I thought my job was to keep people from making bad choices. It didn’t work and I was frustrated and angry at them and at myself.

Eventually I came to my senses. I could lead and cajole. They had to make their own choices. As I got healthier I came to visualize my posture as one standing with an outstretched hand waiting for them to grab hold. I had evidence that chasing did not work. They must have the internal motivation to take the risk of change.

And if they cannot take the risk, I have no choice but to grieve for them and move on to those who will take the risk.

Process, not outcome

I care very much about people choosing wisely. I want them all to do well. But I burned out because I could not control the outcomes in my kids’ or clients’ lives. Clearly envisioning or even articulating the outcome did not make it happen.

What I could control was how I utilized the time that I was with them. I had to build up my repertoire of ways of being with clients that made the process helpful to them. I grew more skilled at figuring out and offering what each client needed. As I did so I the chances improved that my clients benefited from what happened in the room. I was less stressed and results improved.

Good enough, not perfection

Part of what drove me to burnout was my strong conviction that what I did really mattered. Having meaningful work provides great satisfaction. But it also adds great pressure. When we think that what we do is important, we want to do it perfectly. But once again, the limitation of my mortality defeats me, and accepting a “good-enough” standard just seems inadequate for so important a task. But reality wins every time, and my passion to do it perfectly torments me and makes me less effective. I had to let perfection go for my own sake and get back to working on what I could control, improving the in-the-room process.

Fully with them and fully not with them

Very early on I realized that I was pretty good at being connected to those I was trying to help. I think that, like most helpers, I had natural empathy for those in pain. My goal was for them to make good decisions that would increase the odds of life going well for them. I would spend countless hours plotting ways to “make them” make the right choices.

Of course my efforts were doomed from the start. And yet that failure only convinced me that I needed to work harder. I became good at devising ways at boxing them in so they would choose obvious right choice, the one I devised. The harder I tried, the more defeated and exhausted I felt. That sense of burnout was grew. I couldn’t stop obsessing about those I was trying to help. Thoughts about my clients was intruding into 24/7 into life.

Fully with & fully not with

I am now guided by the principle by a different principle. In order for me to be effective and stay healthy I must be fully with my clients when I am with them and fully not with them when I am not with them. As counterintuitive as it is, I find that my ability to be with them is very dependent on my skill at managing the time I am not with them. If I exhaust myself worrying about whether my clients are doing the right thing, I come back to the next session with nothing to give.

Worry versus strategizing

I have developed a rule of thumb for myself. When I am not with a client, I allow myself to think about a client’s life only if I am coming up with a plan or a strategy. Strategizing is okay. In fact, strategizing is good. But if I think about a client three times without any new idea emerging, I need to shut the focus on that client down. I say something to myself like, “I’ve done all I can for now. Leave it alone and see what comes next. No more planning will be useful right now.” The discipline of mind required to do this may be one of the most important skills I ever learned that enables me to keep going year after year.

We need a life

Running parallel with my work is a much bigger thing—my life. I think one of the greatest dangers professionals face is that we get seduced into believing that our work is our life.

I don’t think I have always done this well. And yet I have always known that work needed to serve my life. Not the other way around. Yet as our home life becomes more complicated, we are tempted to pour ourselves into our work. The danger is that sometimes we see more tangible and immediate rewards at work than at home. Our work life needs to serve our “life life.” No the other way around.

We need to be constantly making investments in our outside relationships and activities. If we fail at do that then when work goes badly, we have little left. We need a diversified approach to living life. Spreading our energy around will increase the chances that some part of life is always going well.

You may also want to read:

Wrong ideas I needed to change

Learning to manage myself: Self-imposed roller coaster

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