Part 4 – A Letter to Therapists: Burnout and the Hands-on Approach to your Salvation
Our imaginations are often the pathway in and out of torment.
The mental playground is what I call our imaginations in a therapy session. Learning that our mental playgrounds obey our rules is something many people have never considered. We have imagery come into our minds and we work to get it out. Next time the clown from IT pops into your head, have him wearing braces. Maybe put a puppy chew toy in those vicious teeth of his. These changes will often neutralize the emotional energy we feel towards scary thoughts or images.
Therapists can use their mental playground for their own benefit as well. Where does your mind go as your client is sharing the gritty details that are resulting in the clients own emotional distress? Are you firing up your mental playground and holding on for dear life? Sadly, that’s the experience many therapists report and that is also a huge source of burnout.
Imagining your client’s trauma or distress occurring is painful for therapists. It’s emotional. It’s real emotion. It’s literally us feeling real emotion about what someone else is reporting. Sadly, secondary trauma is a real thing where a therapist hears their client’s traumatic stories, and they psychologically experience and end up with similar emotional responses, flashbacks, and nightmares that their clients report. So, (here comes the shouting again) STOP IMAGINING WHAT YOUR CLIENTS ARE TELLING YOU!
My favorite part about learning about hypnotherapy was a simple fact (hypnotherapy is amazing, by the way, and it is not stage hypnosis so get educated, people!). Hypnotherapists know that the subconscious brain (limbic system) is responsive to “what to do” and is not at all responsive to “what not to do.” It doesn’t understand negatives. So, if we tell our brain, “Don’t imagine your mother skinny dipping under a waterfall,” well… sorry I did that to you. The symbolism and imagery picked up by the limbic system doesn’t hear the “don’t” and it just hears the command. So, tell your kids, “If you touch the stove you’ll be burned” instead of “don’t touch the stove.” Anyways, long tangent to tell you the phrase “Stop imagining what your clients are telling you” will not be effective since the limbic system hears, “go ahead and imagine the whole tragic story!”
So, what should we imagine? How should we control our own mental playground as we are witnessing our client’s pain? Simple. Don’t go with their stories. Listen to hear where your clients are and not how your clients have been. This simple switch is reinforced by “aiming at the target.” As I am listening to my client, I’m with them emotionally as a fellow traveler. I am also the professional in the room who is gaining knowledge of where to go with that client. My mind is thinking that this client is in pain and we are actively taking steps for them to no longer be there. How much can I get caught up in my client’s pain when I know that it’s temporary? We can have the confidence to know that what we’re doing is starting the client on the path to no longer be in pain. That is a cool experience.
It’s not every aspect of a job or client that causes us to burn out. There are certain aspects and certain clients and the burnout then generalizes. Utilizing skills during session such as to bring your emotions away from “healing” and focusing on your target with each client. Don’t just let your emotions and human patterns of connecting (versus professional patterns of connecting) cause you to engage your clients in ways that contribute to your own burnout.
Example: My client Becky is telling me about losing her leg in a tragic double-dutch jump rope accident. Rather than imagining Becky struggling to get out of bed in the morning or feeling deep sadness as she’s so insecure that she cancels date after date, how about imagining “once she has reached her therapeutic goals, where will she be?” The recipe would be finding compassion for Becky as a “fellow traveler”, and then having an internal smile when you think about how she’ll be functioning when she finds her way in a very different life than she imagined. When she’s telling you about cancelling a date, maybe you can imagine her coming into session one day and telling you about sitting at a date and being thankful that she didn’t cancel. How amazing would it be imagining Becky caring for her children in the morning and having her children show her the love that she used to think would no longer be available to her.
Whether you are naturally practicing these skills or you need to write down a note on your wrist so you remember do practice this in session, utilizing your mental playground for your benefit can significantly decrease the amount of burnout you feel. But as I said before, you will not get there if you don’t make this a normal practice.
By Jason Temple, LMFT