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Resourcing Yourself to Overcome Burnout as a Therapist

An image of two hands gently placing a pillow in white linens on a sun drenched bed.

This essay was originally published in the Clinicians Corner of Alma's members-only Community Hub. Learn more about the benefits of joining Alma's community →

The topic of burnout is a hot one these days. In the month of February alone I have been asked to give three talks focused on preventing and coping with burnout. It is perhaps safe to say that I am growing burned out on burnout.

My research has gotten me thinking about how burnout has shown up in my own life, and in those of my colleagues. One definition felt particularly useful in helping me to discriminate between stress and burnout - “stress is having too much. Too many tasks, too many working hours, too many responsibilities. Burnout is having too little. Too little energy, too little motivation, too little care for the work you do.” As a clinician, I can absolutely relate to the experiences of “too much” that are associated with stress- too many back-to-back sessions, unsigned notes, phone calls to be returned. However, this kind of stress - even chronic stress - does not necessarily lead to burnout.

Burnout occurs when we become depleted by the ways in which we respond to stress, leaving us with “too little”. Maybe we fit in that extra clinical hour (or two…), even though it means not having time to go to the gym, eat lunch, or meet a friend for coffee. Perhaps we stay up late finishing our notes, sacrificing our sleep in order to “stay on top of things”. Clinicians often behave as though we are last on our own lists of people whose needs deserve our attention. These behaviors are not problematic when they occur occasionally - when we go through short bursts of increased stress and respond to them in ways that may be less optimal for our own wellbeing. However, when these patterns become chronic and rigid, our responses stress leave us with “empty tanks”. When your tank is empty, the energy required to feel motivated, engaged, and committed - to our work and to our lives outside of work - is simply not available.

The key to combating burnout, from my perspective, is to proactively find ways to “resource yourself”, and the most effective way to do that is to see what you can put in place for your future self. How might you make your own life easier by structuring your environment in ways that support your own wellbeing? Maybe this means creating a time each day for you to do something you find replenishing - a walk, a meditation session, a chat with a friend - and protecting that time as vigilantly as you would the time you set aside for a client. Maybe you sign up for a class at the gym in advance because you know that having to pay a late cancel fee will ensure that you go, even if you “don’t feel like it” (this is true for me). Maybe you find a day to take a day off once a month to do only the kinds of activities that make you feel alive, replenished - that make you feel like YOU again.

If you find yourself feeling “too little”- energy, motivation, care- this is an important sign that you may need to change the ways in which you are responding to all the “too much” in your life. We may not be able to change the intense nature of the demands we face in caring for the mental health of others. Perhaps we can apply some of our tremendous capacity for resourcing others to our own needs.

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Dr. Elisabeth Morray
Elisabeth Morray

About the Author

Dr. Elisabeth Morray is passionate about providing therapy that is grounded in principles of acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). She enjoys creating deeply collaborative relationships characterized by warmth, humor, and the creation of a space in which vulnerability is honored.

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