Therapists are more accustomed to giving care than receiving it. It’s in our nature and our job description. But just because we are trained to help others with their problems doesn’t mean we should try to solve our own. Over 80 percent of therapists have had some sort of therapy themselves.
And in the era of COVID, there are even more reasons for “wounded healers” to seek therapy. If we want to do our best work and avoid burnout, regular self-care is essential. Therapy is a form of self-care that enables us to continue to show up for our patients, wholly and authentically.
When it’s time for a therapist to get therapy
Therapists are familiar with these warning signs in their clients, but it’s often more difficult to recognize symptoms in themselves. Here are some signs that you should seek therapy as a therapist:
1. You have developed unhealthy habits
Being a therapist is rewarding, but it is not always easy. Helping clients to carry their emotional burdens can take a toll. What’s more, due to confidentiality, therapists can’t simply go home and vent about their workday the way that other professionals can. The stress that therapists experience tends to accumulate if not given a healthy outlet. This can lead to bad habits like poor eating patterns, disrupted sleep, or self-medication with alcohol or drugs.
2. You are increasingly triggered and/or exhausted by clinical work
It is normal for feelings to arise when we are in session with a client. In fact, our emotional reactions can be important sources of information about the client and the treatment. However, if you find yourself getting triggered to the point that you have trouble focusing on the session, it is time to seek your own therapy. Likewise, if it is hard to muster the emotional energy to get through your workday, you might benefit from a therapist of your own.
3. You haven’t addressed your own grief or trauma
Many therapists enter the field because they have had their own experiences with trauma or loss. A shared experience can facilitate connection and trust within the therapeutic relationship. However, if you have not processed your traumatic experiences in the context of your own therapy, you run a greater risk of being triggered by your clients. This can adversely affect your client’s experience, blur boundaries, and make it harder to exercise sound, clinical judgment.
4. You’ve lost passion for work, play, or relationships
No therapist experiences boundless enthusiasm day after day. But if you have lost the passion that originally drew you to the work, it may be time to find your own therapist. Apathy and/or feeling “drained” are both symptoms of therapist burn-out. And if this malaise is seeping into other areas of your life, causing you to withdraw from activities or relationships, you might want to seek help sooner rather than later.
Benefits of therapy for therapists
Perhaps you aren’t experiencing any of the above symptoms, but still considering your own therapy. Some mental health agencies and training programs actually require their employees to complete a minimum number of therapy sessions. In Europe, it is mandatory for all therapists. Here are the benefits most often cited by therapists who have had their own therapy:
- It helps you cope with stress
- It increases self-awareness
- It helps you recognize your own biases, triggers, and emotional reactions, (countertransference)
- It helps you develop more empathy for your clients
- It exposes you to different approaches and techniques
Barriers to Therapy for Therapists
Despite these benefits, therapists sometimes hesitate to seek their own therapy due to financial concerns, time constraints, or social stigma. But some places offer low-cost therapy for therapists, and with the advent of Telehealth, therapy is increasingly convenient and accessible. We tell our patients that there is nothing shameful about needing therapy, but if we are going to “talk the talk,” we should also “walk the walk.” Imagine going to a dentist that didn’t access his own dental care. Or a chiropractor who thought adjustments were only for the weak!
Often, the best way to find the best therapist for you is to ask colleagues for recommendations. If you feel nervous about doing that, try your local NASW chapter. There is also the Therapy for Therapists Collective, which offers pro bono services for therapists. (There is a flat, monthly fee of $8 to join the collective). Finally, Psychology Today has a therapist directory that you can search by specialty, insurance, and geographical location.
Practicing good self-care is an important part of being an effective therapist. Although we are trained to help others, it can be difficult to apply clinical skills to ourselves. Seeking therapy from an objective professional can help.