Are Therapists Ever Off Duty?

therapist at work

You attended school, studied diligently and earned your degrees — not to mention the “alphabet soup” of letters those degrees allow you to tack onto the end of your name. You’ve worked with clients to help them learn ways to live happier, healthier lives.

You put in your hours and offer clients your best. A dedicated and compassionate clinician, you incorporate your formal training and “seat of the pants” interventions as needed. Your clients are fortunate to have such a well-equipped, competent counselor to guide them.

But when it’s time to leave the office, do you leave clients and their problems behind? Is your mind always swirling with ideas for interventions? Do you dream of work and of ways to make your clients’ lives easier?

The Drawbacks of Giving Too Much

What happens when you take your work home with you, in your briefcase or in your head?

Potential pitfalls include compassion fatigue and burnout. Another risk is vicarious traumatization, which can happen when you spend so much time hearing about violence, abuse, neglect and suicidality that you begin to feel affected by these traumas yourself.

These stresses accumulate and show themselves in therapists through emotional and physical exhaustion, anxiety and depression, apathy toward clients, feelings of distance from loved ones, absence from work and feeling overwhelmed with the enormity of others’ needs — to the extent that some clinicians leave the field.

In addition to sometimes unintentionally bringing their work home with them, many therapists also feel pressured to be a resource for family and friends. Are you the go-to problem solver for people in your personal life? When someone asks if you can help him or her find treatment, do you immediately turn to the proverbial Rolodex in your brain? Do you indulge people who ask for your advice or your listening ear?

If we’re honest, many of us let our desire for gratification overtake our need to set boundaries. I find myself in that position regularly.

Therapists are professional helpers: We often help simply because that’s what we were trained to do. Many of us believe we’re obligated to help wherever and whenever we can.

Understanding Your Worth

Sometimes professional caregivers might feel “all gived out” with no energy left. That’s when it’s most important to set boundaries in personal and professional interactions.

We have the right — and the responsibility to ourselves — to choose how much time to devote to anyone off the clock. Practice saying “no” when you feel you’re being taken for granted.

Imagine a plumber regularly being asked to unclog family and friends’ toilets or backed-up bathtubs for free, or a chef who’s expected to cook without compensation. Professionals who understand their worth know they don’t owe their services to anyone.

When therapists value themselves, they understand that only they can determine when to render their services — and that no one else owns their time off the clock.

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