Friday, July 25, 2014

How to keep going as a therapist.

Someone recently asked me what keeps me going as a therapist, so I decided to offer my thoughts. Hopefully, these tips can apply to anyone in a field with people: from pastor to social worker. Now there are plenty of good therapists who don't follow this advice, but in my opinion, if a therapist doesn't want to quickly burn out, some of these things may be helpful. These tips are things that I've learned from much more experienced therapists and stuff I've gathered in the few years I've been in this field. 

 As I always say, I'd love your feedback.  

1. A therapist needs to be good at setting up emotional boundaries--being able to separate his/her personal life from the client. When you go home, don't bring your problems or the families/client's issues to your children, spouse, or roommate. They don't need them. It's not fair to you or your family. It's also not fair to the families you're helping because if you can't separate your work from your private life, you'll likely become bitter.

2. Therapists are careful not to see people solely on the basis of their diagnosis. It's important that clinicians use the DSM as a tool to assess a problem, but not as an absolute rule to interpret a family or an individual. Stay curious about each client and don't assume or predict your clients' motivations and dreams. People are complex, and if one thinks they can solve people, they'll likely burn out from too high or too low of the clinician's expectations. I've found that seeing people as merely their diagnosis will prevent one from being curious and joyful with people, which can cause a quick
burn out.   

3. Therapists need to stays humorous. They laugh at themselves because genuineness is just as important as professionalism. Your clients can only be helped when someone points out their strengths and flaws and this often doesn't come by putting on a therapy hat. In other words, if a client is annoying, then it's likely they are annoying a lot of people in their social network. Be genuine. Be real. You're not rude to them, but you're not fake. People are coming to you because they don't see their blind spots. Trying to be "the therapist" without being yourself will burn you out fast.

4. Finally, a therapist is gracious to him or herself. This is a good transition from the previous point. Therapists mess up, a lot! I still remember one of my first cases in graduate school where I literally got up immediately after the session, turned out the lights and closed the door--with the clients still in the room! To this day I have no idea what was going on in my brain to do that. My common sense just turned off. But, I eventually built a great relationship with that person and ended up having some powerful sessions. Even after years of experience, if good clinicians have invested in their clients, they can use their own mistakes as a path to build trust and intimacy between themselves and the client. I had a therapist who called me about a scheduling mistake. His tone was a little harsh and he came across as defensive. The next session, he was very apologetic and told me, "Peter, my tone was very rude when I spoke to you. You actually didn't mess up on the schedule. I did. I got defensive and I'm sorry." It was actually a wonderful session after that and my trust in him exponentially grew toward an incredible journey. Your client may appreciate your mistakes more than you do from time to time and hopefully, prevent early burn out because you're gracious not only to him or her, but to yourself. In Christian terms: you're leaning on the cross just as much as the people you're preaching to.