Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Why am I so tired?

My job is emotionally draining.

Not because I listen to people's sad stories all day and develop vicarious trauma. Of course I feel for other people's suffering, but I'm usually able to write the progress note and move on.

In each session I'm actively forging and sustaining an emotional connection between me and the client. Reflective listening isn't as easy as it sounds; you have to pay attention. I see between seven and 12 people each day (more if I facilitate a group), and I have to grasp their problems and try to refocus how they perceive and deal with them. It's like rearranging mental furniture.

I also experience a lot of their joys and triumphs vicariously -- more so than their traumas. When they get jobs, when they reconnect with their kids, when they get into school or vocational programs. One of my group participants showed me a bunch of pictures of him with his daughters, describing their personalities and quirks with tremendous pride. I almost wept, it was so beautiful.

So I come home exhausted almost every night. I'm trying to figure out why, since I'm sitting down most of the day, with just enough exercise (walking clients to and fro between the reception area and my office) to keep me from spending eight or nine hours immobilized in my chair. I think I'm emotionally drained from being a therapist.

How do other therapists cope with this? How do they recharge their emotional batteries, if they don't have spouses or lovers or children? Maybe they go to the gym.
Copyright (c) "Ayelet Survivor"


  1. I've heard about this phenomenon. This is one reason I didn't become a therapist. It's a sign of how devoted you are to your clients, and your empathy, that you are this drained. But I am sure there are coping mechanisms. Do you have a mentor at work or elsewhere you can talk to about this?--Riva

  2. Maybe I'll talk to Clarice. I miss her being my supervisor.

  3. Agree w Riva, this is one reason I did not think I would be able to handle becoming a therapist. You're a strong person, but even strong people need a break. I think your upcoming vacation will give you more of a battery recharge than you realize. It definitely also helps to have regular bitch sessions aided by the consumption of alcoholic beverages ::grin:: which I intend to facilitate when I'm a bit closer.

    Relax, take five, eat a donut. Carbs are pretty miraculous. :D


  4. The gym is a fabulous idea. Vigorous exercise releases stress, takes off excess pounds, and keeps your physical side vibrant. - plus you never know who you might meet there ;)

  5. Working in the world of emotions is intense…I am a therapist, I currently work for myself, but also previously worked as a mental health therapist within medical settings including oncology/hiv …
    Self care is very important…I occasionally read your blog…our own personal live can weigh in as well….having our professional act together is helpful…that means having constructive and engaging ways to process our work…supervision, peer supervision etc…. compassion fatigue is real…it is not burn out…burn out is more associated with non direct patient care…compassion fatigue is just that…taking time to know how you work, how you recharge is key…..talking about your experiences is vital…how long have you been doing this work?...what is your setting?
    I have been doing this work a long time and work with others on this topic…feel free to write back.

  6. Last time I went to the gym, a trainer destroyed my knees. I still have pain 3 years later.

  7. I got my MSW in May 2008 and started this job in June 2008, so it's been a little over a year. The problem is, I don't have enough of a personal life to recharge my emotional batteries. I talked about it in therapy with Dr. Roda this morning. He's hoping I'll meet someone on the cruise ;)

  8. why not do something that gives you exercise but doesn't make you feel bad afterwards, like a yoga class or a dance class (israeli dance class?). Taking that time to focus on physical rather then mental concerns helps me get over my burnout from work (which I love, but which makes my brain hurt sometimes)

  9. Yafa Shulamit9/30/2010 7:41 PM

    In school to become a massage therapist, the other students and I were warned about not just physical burnout from doing massages, but the sometimes overwhelming experience of being affected by client's pain, woes, and even negative attitude and mood. Absorbing their bad energy, if you will. Many massage therapists are in the field due to their compassion, empathy, and sensitivity to people--often they are also energy workers. (I didn't study Reiki or any other energetically based modalities, but have been told that my massages feel like energy work is involved.) In the process of helping a client, an MT can potentially take upon herself the clients' issues, both emotional and even sometimes physical. The advise to just "not take it personally" in regards to the client's mood isn't very helpful. (A mood doesn't have to even be something vitriolic directed at you to leave you feeling drained and blah.)
    SO, there some of the teachers had a few recommendations. One was to physically shake it off--as though you're shaking water off your hands. You can actually WASH your hands with cold water, think of literally washing that person's emotional energy off of you.
    Another teacher believed that wearing white helped reflect off (deflect? protect from?) a client's energy such that she didn't absorb what she didn't want to absorb while she's helping the person. Don't know about that one, but since you've shown an interest in crystal therapy, I thought I'm mention it!
    That same teacher had what I think is the most helpful. She suggested visualizing yourself as a one way conduit of healing energy. The healing light (probably white for her, I think of it more golden) comes not from the therapist, but from an outside, undepletable source (makes me think: refuah shlema) that goes through the therapist to facilitate the healing of another. Yes, there's no denying that a massage experience is the product of both the therapist and the recipient and as such there is an aspect of give and take. But, this idea of a conduit for healing may help a massage therapist resist the inclination to be drained of her own energy reserve and acquire the burden of another's pain.
    I realize that being a social worker is very different that being a massage therapist. But, while there's not the aspect of physical contact, you are giving of yourself. Just as it takes a toll physically on a massage therapist to do hours a day of massages, I see it takes significant concentration and mental gymnastics to understand each of your patients and respond with helpful and effectively therapeutic insight. Hard to escape that fact. Perhaps, though, you could think of the empathetic work you do as something you can physically shake off and the emotional support you provide as emanating from a tap of refuah shlema?
    Wow, this comment became long! I don't even know if this is still an issue for you since you wrote this blog entry over a year ago!'re probably over due for a massage so I would be derelict in my duty as a caring reader and massage therapist to say:
    Go. Get ye to a massage therapist.