The Unintentional "Therapist"
Updated: Oct 14
Maybe you just have that kind of face: approachable, kind, understanding. Perhaps you have just always been that person that people turn to in your family to resolve conflict. Or you are just in the right place at the right time - a place where conversation feels necessary to pass the time (think hairdressers, bartenders, estheticians, etc,.). The fact is many of us get caught in these "therapist" type roles without noticing how we got there. Sure, it's nice to be there for a friend or family member or even the occasional stranger in need but after a while it can be surprisingly draining or downright exhausting.
I've received this feedback from many hairdressers and bartenders - when they get home they are often completely gutted after a day of performing two jobs: The job they were trained to do and the other that requires additional emotional presence (listening to people's problems). One of the most valuable things we learn as therapists is how to recognize the warning signs of burnout. Burnout is common among health professionals that are overworked and over stressed and can lead to a myriad of symptoms including feelings of hopelessness, exhaustion, intrusive thoughts, and problems with personal relationships. Needless to say - you don't want your therapist battling intrusive thoughts while you share your innermost struggles.
As therapists, we are trained in self-monitoring and the importance of self-care so we can be present and competent for our clients. We learn our limits and establish boundaries. The unintentional helper is often unaware of these limitations and can end up suffering the consequences. So what can you do if you are in one of these roles and begin to feel overwhelmed by it all?
1) Understand the signs and symptoms of burnout
- Reduced ability to feel empathy
- Increased substance use
- Dread of working with certain clients/seeing certain people
- Diminished sense of enjoyment
- Intrusive thoughts
- Hypersensitivity or insensitivity to emotional material
- Difficulty setting boundaries
- Problems with intimacy/personal relationships
2) Set boundaries
Understand your limits. Maybe certain subjects are triggering for you; understand that as a non-therapist you are not required to endure certain topics that make you feel uncomfortable. Learn ways to redirect the conversation and/or make it clear that you are not in a position to help with or comment on certain issues (i.e. trauma, abuse, relationship issues).
3) Take care of you
The term self-care gets thrown around a lot these days, but what is it really? I define self-care as any activity that helps you feel more centered, energized, or generally more like yourself. It's not about distracting from your problems, but rather space to process and recover. Meditation or mindfulness can be a great practice for reconnecting with yourself. Exercise is a crucial source of feel-good hormones that help counter the negative physiological and psychological effects of stress. Social connection is another important way to feel reconnected and grounded. Some clients tell me that no one activity is enough to rejuvenate them - that's okay. The idea is to gradually restore balance through these activities to counter the gradual depletion that occurs from bearing someone else's emotional burden.
4) Reach out
Talk to your own therapist and encourage others to do the same. We all have our battles, and there is no shame in reaching out. In fact, I've learned that sharing about
your own experiences in therapy encourages others to seek the help they need.
Sometimes our preferred careers or roles in life come with more than we initially bargained for, so take the steps necessary to take care of you!