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Avoiding Burnout for the Helping Professional

Avoiding Burnout for the Helping Professional

Is it me or are you getting on my last nerve?

Written by Kelle Watson, M.A. LPC
Director of Mental Health 

Being in a helping profession is a noble calling. It can be rewarding beyond anything money can buy. It can make you feel fulfilled and left with a feeling that all is right with the world. This is how we all begin as helpers, wide eyed, naïve, with lofty notions of changing the world one person at a time. While being a helper is truly an altruistic thing to do, it can leave us feeling stressed, defeated, unappreciated, resentful, exhausted, and angry. If we are not careful, being a helper can lead us down the road to a bad case of burn out.

Think back to a time when you had a bad friend. You know the one who always talks about themselves and interrupts you if you try to change the subject and if by some chance  you do get to talk they don’t remember anything you have said to them? The friend who borrows money from you and doesn’t pay it back and also forgets that you loaned them money to begin with? The friend you dread when you see their number come up on your phone or in a text because you know it is them wanting to drain the life out of you? The friend who is so dramatic you wonder why they didn’t go into acting? The friend who has a string of horrible relationships and wants your advice about why they keep ending up with the same type of person when you’ve already told them three relationships ago? The friend who meets you for dinner, forgets their wallet and then challenges the tip you are leaving the server?  We have all had this kind of friend. This friend left us feeling pretty resentful, unappreciated, and angry. Most of us eventually realize the relationship is neither a relationship nor reciprocal and we cut our losses and are no longer friends with these people. We walk away.

When we are a helper, it is not about us, it is about the other person as it should be. This one sided relationship can be extremely draining. The lack of reciprocity combined with the continued giving of ourselves can cause us to feel resentment towards the person we truly want to help. If this festers and grows, resentment turns to anger, anger turns to fatigue, fatigue turns to burn out and the burn out may make us want to walk away from the helping profession.

I remember years ago meeting an older man at a counseling training. He told me he had walked away from the profession for several years because he was, “just so burnt out”. He looked at me with little to no confidence in his eyes and said, “I hope this doesn’t happen to me again”.  I remember wondering what his plan was. Was he planning on leaving the profession again and again? That didn’t seem like much of a plan. I remember being grateful for meeting him early on in my career as it made me realize I did not want this to happen to me. So, I began to put a self care plan in place.

What is self care? Self care is attending to all facets of your life.  If you break your foot you would go to the doctor and get it fixed and no one would call you selfish for doing so. You are just taking care of yourself. People empathize with our broken foot, open the door for us as we hobble through it, or ask to sign our cast. We get the compassion and empathy we deserve for our broken foot. While everyone can spot a broken foot, not everyone can spot a weary soul. So, when a weary soul asks for time to take care of themselves emotionally, mentally, or spiritually, unfortunately they may be viewed as being selfish or self indulgent.

Think back to the last time you boarded a plane. You excitedly or maybe anxiously were awaiting takeoff. The flight attendants began their safety talk as you buckled in half listening. They instruct you if the oxygen masks drop, put yours on first so you can help the person next to you. I’ll admit the first time I heard that I thought that seemed selfish but then again I was new to the helping profession. Logically, if you are gasping for breath you are in no shape to help the person next to you. You have to take care of yourself before you can begin to help the person next to you.

Part of my job is teaching counselors how to learn the balance of helping others while also remembering to care for themselves. I know they will not last long in the field if they don’t find this balance. Balance is very important in life. You can’t continually withdraw from your bank account without putting more money in. You can’t continually drive without filling up your car with gas. You can’t continually give to others without giving to yourself.

A helping professional needs to have a self care plan in place. If they do not have one, burn out may begin to creep in. Burn out may start slowly and then build. Some common signs are anger, resentment, irritability, apathy, and stress. By the time these signs begin to appear, it is time to take action and address these negative emotions before they get worse.

If your engine light comes on in your car and doesn’t go out you wouldn’t ignore it because you know if you do, you are eventually going to break down on the side of the road. You would make an appointment with a mechanic. You would learn what the problem is before something worse may happen. Think of the beginning of burn out as your engine light coming on. Your emotions are trying to tell you something is not quite right. You need to slow down, listen to it and attend to it. Becoming self aware is the first step.  Once you become self aware you are heading towards burn out you need to take action. Taking action is what calms you down, what destresses you, and also what builds your reserves back up. Building your reserves back up allows you to continue on so you can help others.

I’ve heard miraculous stories of people surviving in the open sea for hours. One thing they always mention is that for a while they just floated on top of the water not expending much energy. It helped conserve the energy they needed to keep treading the water because they didn’t know when or if they would be rescued. So they would tread, then float, tread, then float. No one would call them selfish for floating. They were conserving their energy and building back up their reserves. Not only was this a smart thing to do, it ended up being life saving.

As helping professionals, sometimes we are working with clients who are also experiencing burn out. Our clients may be giving to others in their lives at the expense of themselves. Sometimes our clients allow others to take advantage of them, use them, or worse, abuse them. If we, in the helping profession, have our own self care plan in place we can easily teach clients how to do the same. If we do not have a self care plan in place, then we will have little success in trying to teach it to others.

So what does a self care plan look like? It is as varied as we are. For some it is being alone, for others it is being with friends and family. For some it is going to the beach, for others it is going to the mountains.

The following is a list of self care options to put into practice to reduce the stress in your life and build your reserves back up. It is not an exhaustive list but rather a starter list so you can begin to think about what your own personal self care list would look like:

Take a 20 minute nap

Learn how to meditate

Sit outside and enjoy nature

Take a long bath

Talk with a supportive friend

Write in a journal

Do something creative like draw, paint, or play an instrument

Make something creative, bake, create a new recipe, knit a scarf

Close your eyes and count slowly to 100

Do some deep breathing

Spend 5 minutes being grateful

Take time to exercise

Try yoga, Pilates, or tai chi

Spend 10 minutes stretching

Go to a park and swing on a swing

Light some incense, close your eyes and let it take you to another place

Have a cup of tea

Go to the bookstore and read for hours

Watch you tube videos that make you laugh

Watch you tube videos of animals and babies

Work in the garden, arrange some flowers

Take a long hot shower

Unplug from social media

Go to a museum

People watch

Go sit on the beach

Stargaze

Tell corny jokes

Go to the spa for a massage or facial

Google inspirational quotes

Doing things that you enjoy, that are relaxing, restful, creative, restorative, and good for you helps build  your reserves back up. Once your reserves are built back up you are ready to help others once again. After all, that is why we all chose a helping profession in the first place. I encourage you to take the time to care for yourself and incorporate a self care plan into your life. Once it is incorporated, it will become second nature. You will have a go to list that replenishes your emotional reserves and gets you ready to give to others once again.

I would like to leave you with one final thought. Have you taken care of yourself today?

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