For Therapists

Compassion fatigue in therapy: self-care for professional helpers

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Johanne is a Danish psychologist trained in behavioral methods and the co-founder of It's Complicated. She completed her education as a psychologist at the University of Copenhagen in 2013, with a master's degree and experience within the fields of narrative therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT).

Last Updated on December 29, 2023 by It’s Complicated

The vast majority of all clinicians see it as their professional responsibility to empower their clients to take care of themselves. Amongst many behavioral therapists this is done by teaching specific, evidence-based methods of self-care, like mindfulness meditation and deep-relaxation skills. But most people would agree that there’s an element of self-care involved in psychotherapy of any sort, particularly when it comes to compassion fatigue in therapy.

So, if self-care is an integral part of the therapeutic process and the client’s betterment, how do therapists relate to the concept of self-care themselves? Some might think they don’t need it, some might think they get enough from a monthly supervision group, and others might simply forget their own advice. It’s not always easy to practice what you preach, especially when experiencing compassion fatigue in therapy.

Secondary stress reactions in care-giving roles

One of the most commonly known risks of therapists neglecting themselves is compassion fatigue. While this type of stress, also known as secondary stress reaction, can affect a wide range of professions, it tends to be common among professional caregivers who regularly work in a helping capacity.

In other words, it results from helping or wanting to help those who are traumatized or under significant emotional distress, and because therapists are trained to utilize compassion and empathy in order for therapy to be effective, they are particularly vulnerable to taking on the emotional stress of their clients. This can of course have ethical and legal implications if left untreated.

Making sure that you receive supervision and seeking out mentor relationships will definitely help you spot when you are being affected by compassion fatigue in therapy, and inspire you to take better care of yourself. But is it enough?

It all of course depends on the circumstances, like how much you work, whether you provide a service where you are on-call, how big your admin load is, what difficulties you might have in your private life, and maybe most importantly what type of clients and client stories you are working with.

The It’s Complicated family, now grown to over 2000 therapists worldwide.

Knowing when you can’t do it by yourself

There are a lot of resources for practitioners suffering from lack of self-care to turn to and there are even self-care lists for practitioners to go over when experiencing compassion fatigue in therapy, when in need of tools developed specifically for their professional needs. But just as there’s a risk that clients equate “self-care” to the belief that they should handle their stress on their own, the coping techniques described in checklists also shouldn’t come in the way of reaching out for support.

Practicing therapy can be highly rewarding, but at times it can also be isolating, and like with so many neoliberal practices these days, if used the wrong way, self-care can also become an individualizing “DIY” doctrine that only furthers your stress.

So maybe, no matter who you are, the most important aspect of self-care is knowing when you can’t do it all by yourself. Listen to our podcast episode below for a beautiful conversation on navigating compassion fatigue as a therapist.

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It’s Complicated is a therapy platform that not only helps clients find their perfect therapist but also supports therapists in their craft of helping others. Featuring over 2,000 mental health professionals from 80+ countries, counselling is available in almost 100 languages, both online and in person. A GDPR-compliant video solution, encrypted messaging, and easy invoicing guarantee a private and seamless counselling experience for therapists and clients alike. If you are in a serious crisis and need urgent help, please use one of these resources instead.

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