Q: I am a helping professional and I am feeling really stuck in my work with my clients. Some days I’m motivated and energized to help people, and other days I am exhausted and drained and have little compassion. And then other days I just wonder if the work I’m doing is actually making a difference in my clients’ lives. I feel awful admitting all of this, but it’s the truth.
I know this might sound odd: it is so refreshing to hear someone else say the very things I have thought to myself so many times and wondered if anyone else could relate to me. You are certainly not alone, and that is the first thing I want you to know.
The job of a helping professional is such a unique one: we have the privilege of sitting with clients in some of the most painful, excruciating times of their lives, and we hold the space for them as they grieve or protest or process or keep pressing on. And even after they leave our offices, we continue to hold that space by ourselves. In large part, that is due to confidentiality; in small part, that is because we are too busy to give ourselves a moment to breathe, too scared to confide in a colleague or too focused on looking like we “have it all together” to be real with ourselves.
The reality is that we too often tell our clients to do things that we aren’t doing for ourselves. Self-care. Invest in important relationships. Be honest. Love ourselves. Rest. And when we neglect to do these things for ourselves, it shows in our health, our families, our friendships and our ability to care for our clients.
I thought of a few familiar myths that I hear about why it’s difficult for helping professionals to find the support they need, along with my two cents about each one:
Myth #1: I know all of the good therapists.
I’m sure you have a list of great referrals you know for your friends, family members, colleagues…but that’s the problem: you know them. I know it can be difficult to find a therapist whom you respect and trust to walk with you through your own personal struggles.
My Two Cents: expand your search to people outside the role of your “therapist.” Perhaps what you need is a peer support group, a spiritual director, a consulting supervisor, or a friend. I think we become so accustomed to the work we do that we forget that help and healing can come from a variety of places.
The reality is that we too often tell our clients to do things that we aren’t doing for ourselves.
Myth #2: Colleagues won’t refer to me if they know I have issues.
I hear the concern: if I tell my colleagues that I feel incompetent as a therapist, they certainly won’t refer anyone to me. And I really depend upon their referrals, and I don’t want to have a bad reputation in the greater therapy community.
My Two Cents: I have two thoughts on this one. First, find a group of colleagues that you trust when you share these personal struggles. As with other relationships in life, I always believe in the importance of trusting those who are trustworthy. Second, when you do find that safe group of people, sharing your struggles makes you human, gives others the freedom to share their own vulnerabilities, and usually brings a new level of respect and care for your and your practice.
Myth #3: I should know how to handle my own issues. After all, I am a therapist.
I work with clients who struggle with the same issues that I do, and I can help them well enough. I should be able to take my own advice and deal with these issues. After all, I have training and experience and education in this area.
My Two Cents: I think the best cardiac surgeons in the world would never perform surgery on their own hearts. I know that example is a bit extreme, and yet I think we often try to perform the same heroic feat. As much as we help our clients through their own struggles, we also validate and encourage them that asking for help is perfectly acceptable and that we aren’t meant to go through life on our own. Let’s take that advice instead.
More to come,