Posted on June 27, 2018 by Jenn Zatopek
I am not sure when the burnout started. It might have begun the first day I saw a counseling client, back in autumn of 2012, in which I was tasked to help a recovering alcoholic find stability through the Twelve Steps of Alcoholic Anonymous and the counseling process of attentive listening. Perhaps the burnout began when I started my counseling internship in 2014, in which I was instructed to make state-agency clients learn about their diagnoses, persuade them to take their medication, and convince them to volunteer their time in the hopes of making a better life for themselves.
If only it were that simple. People don’t like to give up their problems that easily. They marry them, have children with them, become one with them.
I suppose the counseling burnout really began with mom and dad, where I served as the peacemaker while my parents fought and raged at each other. Mostly, I remember strained silences in which I physically could not find peace in my body because my father (when he wasn’t gone) would shoot dirty looks at my mother and my mother would project her own anger of my father onto me in the form of relentless harsh criticism, evaluation, and judgement.
I thank God daily that I am an adult now and get to do things differently.
Perhaps ancient childhood stories of pain, of growing up too fast, of having to “figure out” how to save my parents’ marriage, are getting in the way of my current vocation. I would certainly believe they are, and that in my own counseling, I’ll need to work on those issues in further depth, taking the time to allow myself to feel anger, grief, bargaining, depression, and acceptance of my past. Dr. Kubler-Ross was spot on in her understanding of the grief and forgiveness process.
But the thing is that all I know is that right now, I am weary of counseling. I am done with frantic texts from clients, asking for immediate assistance, of calls late into the night begging for help.
I suppose I feel used. I am quite sure it’s not the intention of my clients who are soliciting counseling advice. They are doing the very best they can, but I mostly feel as if my worth as a human being lies in my ability to help others, rather than in my inherent worthiness as a human being. Like you, the fact that I am breathing air in my lungs makes me worthy of love and belonging.
The problem is that counseling is a worthy and noble profession, and in many ways, obtaining my graduate degree led me back to my favorite thing to do: writing. The problem, of course, is that writing is not really the main feature of counseling. Listening to people is. The other problem, of course, is systems. Many systems require workers to exert power over clients, i.e., that somehow, by the sheer force of will, those of us can “make” clients come back to counseling, make them want help, and make them choose good things.
The power, then, lies within me, but the truth is a lie. I am not Jesus. It is not my job to fix anyone nor can I because I am merely a human being, complete with beauty and chaos within, just like every other human being on the planet today.
I’ll be at another counseling agency soon, and I am hopeful. The great surprise is my future supervisor outright rejected the lie of power over others. In the interview, she said “We only ever plant seeds and there is nothing we can do to make anyone change. They have to be the ones to do so.” I can do that. I can provide information, education, and a listening ear. I just won’t buy the lie anymore that I can fix anyone anymore. I can bear witness to the suffering of clients (when I am spiritually fed by the Divine and my tribe) but I can do nothing else.
In order to alleviate my anxiety and practice detachment, I now practice EMDR on my phone via the Anxiety Release app. EMDR is an evidence-based therapy for anyone who has survived trauma, and let’s face it: that’s all of us. The app provides several short sessions of tonal bilateral stimulation, which helps us get unstuck from obsessive thinking and allows for a greater sense of relaxation and peace. I can’t recommend it enough.
I recite the first line of the Serenity Prayer during difficult client sessions to find stability: God, grant me the serenity. Truly, it is a remarkably healing prayer.
Coloring with markers is a wonderful way to release stress and making affirmations using markers is even better.
Reminding myself that I don’t fix but educate others is a helpful antidote for me. It breaks much of the counseling theorists’ advice, which centers on feeling the feelings of others to make psychological contact. BS, y’all, BS. It is okay to detach oneself and remember that everyone, even those living in chaos, are not forgotten about by the Divine. In fact, one might even go so far as to suggest that God is right there with them, in the muck doing what She can to honor their choices and to help. (Eve by William Paul Young).
I practice gratitude daily and remember that counseling is not forever (necessarily) but simply for now. I can do most anything one day at a time.
I let go of perfectionism, people-pleasing, and performance as measuring sticks for my worth.
In my meditation, I ask God to help me sit with the difficult feelings of overwhelmment, compassion fatigue, and neglect. My feelings are a clue for me that I need to slow down, pray, and rest, and there is nothing better than doing absolutely nothing and waiting for answers from the Divine. I sometimes think that God would talk more to us if we just stopped moving for awhile and stayed still long enough to listen.