Almost everyone I meet socially asks me: Don’t you get exhausted by listening to so many people everyday?
My honest answer to them is: yes, I get exhausted, as anyone would. However, I do not get affected.
So the question is, do psychologists have emotional problems due to the daily dose of heightened emotions they experience on a daily basis? If yes, then how do they handle it?
Let me start with how I look at my job. At the very beginning of my career as a Psychologist, I was extremely skeptical about how I was going to survive in this field. So many of my seniors back then had quit their jobs and independent practices to do something entirely different.
I initially started conducting sessions under strict supervision and continuous training. As a part of this training, I would sometimes express how some cases were affecting me personally, as I too had gone through something similar and it would become emotionally exhausting to feel empathy at all times.
A simple task to do before, during and after each session, made my life easier back then and I still follow the same technique even today.
Before The Session
Before the first session of the day, I have a practice of meditating. I sometimes do a guided meditation, or simply practice mindfulness. I focus on my breath, my awareness of my surroundings, and focus on my heart center. This helps with the feeling of compassion and empathy. Before each and every session, I keep some time for myself.
I have a very useful mantra that helps me: everything else can wait.
My life events are going to be present even after an hour. I have an awareness of the issues I’m supposed to handle immediately, in which case, I usually cancel the session, or delay issues which don’t require immediate attention.
I make it a point to reschedule sessions when I am unable to deal with my own emotions on a particular day. But the greatest thing about regular co-counseling sessions with my peers and having a heightened awareness of my thoughts and emotions is that I can deal with my emotions in an effective manner. So unless I’m really physically unwell or going through a rough patch in my life, I do not reschedule sessions.
The next useful mantra that I have is: my intention to help this person is important.
A lot of times, when psychologists get into the routine of conducting sessions, they feel the stress of daily scheduling and financial pressures. However, having a clear intention of helping someone tops everything else. I check and recheck my intention every single day as it gives me a sense of purpose. Each and every client is different, though their problems might be similar. I mostly focus on these differences rather than the similarities, which helps me avoid a cookie-cutter approach.
During The Session
Empathy and compassion are natural human characteristics. We all possess a basic level of empathy and compassion. So during a session, I am not merely listening. My mind forms a clear visual of the situation my client is in. I can understand the various emotions that he/she might be experiencing in this situation. Fortunately for me, I have been through plenty of rough situations since childhood, which helps me to understand my clients clearly. As they say, nothing beats personal experience.
I have personally worked on, and am still working on, a lot of my own inner experiences, which gives me hope for my client. It is this hope which tells me, “I remember the time when I felt this way. And I know that with sufficient work on myself, I have accepted these emotions and experiences in my life. So can my client”. So now, it is just a matter of approach that I need to use with each client.
Along with understanding emotions, it is important for me to simultaneously figure out the underlying subconscious causes of my client’s distress. Sometimes it is a defense mechanism that my client is unaware of, and sometimes it is a fear or a basic innate strong unfulfilled need. It can be anything.
This entire analytical process balances with empathy and compassion.
However, the most important thing I do is that I do not push myself or force myself to bring out results immediately. I go at my client’s pace.
It is good to remember that as a psychologist, I need not be hard on myself and ultimately, the choice to change depends on my client.
After The Session
Immediate disconnect. I do not ponder over my client’s problems. I take at least a day to sit and review the session and document it. This helps me become more rational and objective. I do not feel pity or sympathy for my client. I know that he/she can deal with their situation. Most of the time, you can burnout purely by thinking too much about a tough case even in your leisure time.
Hence, it is imperative that I live my life while experiencing my own emotions and focusing on ME rather than my clients.
These are very simple steps and they do require practice. Having followed these basic steps for 8 years, today I can live my life without burning myself out.
The key things to remember are:
You are important in your own life.
Having empathy does not mean you are responsible for other people’s lives.
You can have a balanced life and be there for yourself.
So good luck to all the budding mental health practitioners out there and the ones who are already practicing and finding themselves close to burnout! Enjoy your work! It is very fulfilling and absolutely FUN!
Sonal Sonawani is the founder psychologist at CEDAR (Center for Depression Anxiety Relationships) in Pune, India. You can reach out to her at https://www.beyondtherapy.in/.