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Therapist Burnout: Recognize the Signs and Avoid It

Avoid Therapist Burnout by Recognizing the Signs

Are you burned out? As a therapist, you’ve devoted your life to the service of others. You are committed to helping others have a healthy and successful life, but what about yourself? As they say, you can’t pour from an empty cup. Sometimes, you give so much of yourself that there’s nothing left to give. If you’re running on empty (or getting close), here are a few tips to help you fill back up:

What Are the Symptoms of Burnout?

First, let’s recognize the symptoms of burnout. It’s a lot easier to recognize the signs of burnouts in your clients. You know what to look for and can easily pinpoint what they may be missing. But when it comes to evaluating yourself, it’s a lot harder. You’ll make excuses for yourself and frankly, you’ll judge yourself a lot harder than you ever would a client. At first, burnout whispers. You may notice that you’re not experiencing the same level of satisfaction you once received from your work. If you’re not careful, this can cause feelings of guilt or even panic. Before long, you’ll dread going to work, but even when you’re home, you’ll be preoccupied with all of the things you need to do, haven’t done, or want to do. Do any of these telltale symptoms sound like you:
  • Anxiety
  • Apathy
  • Feeling “drained”
  • Loss of appetite
  • Mental exhaustion
  • Mild depression
  • Persistent or recurring illness
  • Persistent physical exhaustion
  • Sleeplessness
If so, you’re probably experiencing burnout.

What Causes Burnout?

You’re finally doing what you love (or are you?). Even contemplating that thought for a moment can cause feelings of guilt or anxiety, but it’s an important question to ask yourself, especially if you’re exhibiting any of the above symptoms of burnout. And that’s not the only question you need to ask yourself to find the root of your burnout.

Do you really love what you do? Why? Why not?

Be honest with your answer. It’s okay to be unsure. Sometimes, this question can be the spark that leads you in a new direction for your practice.

Do you feel like you’re not as effective with your clients as you once were?

You’re not alone. Research shows that the longer you work in mental health, the less effective you feel you are at helping your clients solve their problems.

Do you feel like a fraud sometimes?

Whether you have a degree from a four year university or a certification from a trusted organization, you can still have moments of self-doubt. What if you’re not giving your clients the right advice? What if they trust you and something goes wrong? What if you’re not cut out to be a therapist after all? These nagging questions can poison your day and eventually cause you to feel overwhelmed and unsure.

Do you find yourself in a constant state of worry?

It’s only human to worry, but as a therapist who’s running your own private practice, you probably have even more worries than the next guy. You’re worried about your clients (naturally), but you’re also worried about how to get more clients, how to market your practice, and how to hire the right employees.

Do you feel like you’re perpetually unprepared?

If your days are filled with a constant stream of clients, it could make you feel overwhelmed and frazzled on a daily basis, leading ultimately to burnout.

Do you internalize the unhappiness that your clients may feel?

As a therapist, you work with people who are in some way dissatisfied with their lives. Being an empathetic listener can take a toll on your own mental and emotional well-being.

Do you feel like you weren’t able to help a particular client?

Many therapists have experienced that one client they couldn’t help. And sometimes, the inability to help this client can throw you into a tailspin of self-doubt, frustration, and ultimately burnout.

Cures for Therapist Burnout

Sometimes, the best cure is a week-long vacation to somewhere beautiful. But that’s not always the go-to solution to burnout. While vacations can help break the pattern, the pattern often resumes when you return. Overcoming burnout and avoiding it in the future often requires lifestyle adjustments and a permanent mental shift. Let’s talk about the best self-care practices you should consider in your quest to cure and prevent burnout.

Learn to Say Yes

Conventional wisdom says you should say “no,” but the best opportunities in life open up when you do the opposite. It’s okay to say “no,” but it’s even more important to say “yes.” For example, say “yes” to taking a break, getting paid what you’re worth (more on that next), and setting healthy boundaries between your practice and your personal life. Say “yes” to opportunities that fear or self-doubt would advise you against. Say “yes” to help, too. Burnout is often the result of saying “no” to yourself and “yes” to everyone else. I want you to flip that “yes” switch on for you, too.


Anne Lamott put it best when she said, “Almost everything will work if you unplug it for a few minutes… including you.” Take every opportunity to unplug (remember to say “yes” to yourself). Whether you’re off on a trip to a foreign locale, discovering the beauty of your own town, or spending the weekend watching documentaries on Netflix, take a break from your job. And do it regularly. Once or twice a year isn’t enough of a break. To maintain perspective, you must disengage frequently. That way, you can see the forest, and not just the trees. Unplugging can also mean from technology. We’re so connected to our smartphones and social media that it can feel like an old-timey notion to close the laptop, turn off the phone and tablet, and just be alone with a good book.

Break Up Your Day

Take breaks throughout the day. Frequent breaks (even a short one once every hour) can help you increase your efficiency and stay focused on the task at hand. Taking mental breaks is especially helpful for mental health therapists. You spend the majority of your time in your brain, and it’s important to step outside of heavy thinking to gain much needed perspective. On your breaks, consider spending time outside in a green space (like the park). Research shows that green spaces help to reduce stress (cortisol) levels markedly.

Take Up a Hobby

You probably think you don’t have any space to cram one more thing into your busy schedule, but of course, you do. Prioritize your creativity. Engage in a hobby that helps you express a different portion of your personality.

Final Thoughts

Burnout can, and often does, happen to any of us. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you don’t love what you do, but it does mean that you need to take a break to recharge.

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