Saturday, October 22, 2011

Ask the Doc - Am I burning my therapist out?

Life has been a struggle for me lately. It seems like all I ever bring into my therapy sessions is an endless parade of bummers. Sometimes I worry that I'm too much for my therapist. Is that possible? Can too many bad events burn my therapist out?

The one thing I can tell you for sure is that you're not alone in your concern. It's easy to see your therapist as someone who is "paid to hear bad news." That feels pretty unbalanced. You certainly don't want a therapist who tells you all of their problems, but it can feel strange to just dump yours on someone.

I can't speak for every therapist, of course, but I've had conversations with plenty of clients who worry that they're bringing me down. Many colleagues deal with the same questions from clients, and we talk about what that means. Sometimes, concern about sharing things with your therapist can be a sophisticated defense against getting to what really bugs you. Sometimes you're just dealing with a social norm that doesn't apply to the therapy setting. Whatever the reason for it, undue concern for your therapist's well-being can definitely get in the way of getting your therapy work done.

I can honestly say that, while I think of my clients and their worries between sessions, I am infinitely more satisfied with the job I'm doing when a client "burdens" me than when they protect me. For many people, that act of "protecting" people is what has stood in the way of their ability to fully experience their emotions. And I firmly believe that until we can accept and experience our true emotions, we can't live a full and balanced life.

If you broke your finger, would you try and protect your physician's feelings by pretending that it didn't really hurt that much? Would you understate your pain so your doctor didn't go home and worry about you? Likely not. While it's okay to show physical pain in our culture, mental pain is a much more complicated subject. And as a therapist, it's my job to provide a comfortable and trusting environment with well-defined boundaries so you can fully experience your emotions without thinking that it's causing problems for me.

I'm much more tired after a day of trying to turn a casual conversation into something worth my clients' time than I am after a fully-connected, fully-disclosing session with someone who is really doing the therapy work. That's what I'm there to do. There's a lot of satisfaction that comes with feeling as though you have really helped someone by connecting with them.

This doesn't mean that your every visit to the therapist should include wailing, teeth-gnashing and the rending of garments. But, if you need to get there and you're worried that it will be too tough for your therapist, it's time to have an open and honest conversation about that very thing during your next session.


  1. I always worry that my drama is just too silly and that the therapist thinks I'm wasting her time!

  2. Aaaaand, there's a great idea for another post.

    Our emotions are the only real truth we have. If it's hard for you, it's HARD. No matter how it feels for someone else.

    Plus, there's some great stuff to work on, just in that one sentence.

  3. i had a dear friend who would go to a therapist, and not want to 'air her problems' in front of them. in an attempt to get her to utilize her therapist, i came up with the 'plumber analogy,' as it seemed the most appropriate.

    when your toilet gets stopped up, you call the plumber. when the plumber gets to your house, you don't stop him from entering the bathroom because it is totally disgusting and embarrassing. their job is to fix the toilet, and that includes, often, viewing nasty shit (pun intended).

    not to say that therapists are emotional plumbers, but ... kind of :)

  4. That's fantastic, and I'm stealing it. :)