Gerard Lawson, ACA’s 66th president

The cover story for this issue of Counseling Today is an important one. We rarely enjoy stopping to reflect on our vulnerabilities, but in the counseling profession, being aware of our strengths and our vulnerabilities will make us better counselors.

The word “burnout” gets used a lot these days. I’ve heard young adults talking about being burned out on their job at a retail store in the mall. Back in the 1980s, Herbert Freudenberger provided one of my favorite definitions of burnout, calling it a “state of fatigue or frustration brought about by devotion to a cause, way of life or relationship that failed to produce the expected reward.” This highlights why you probably aren’t burned out from working retail. Unless you are devoted to the cause of the Gap or Old Navy, you may be fatigued and frustrated, but you probably aren’t burned out.

Counselors are different, however. Most counselors are, in fact, devoted to the cause of helping people address the challenges they are facing in life. We often see people succeed, but, frequently, our best efforts do not produce the expected reward. That is where our response gets slipperier and slipperier. Many counselors see their clients continue to struggle, so these counselors try to work harder, investing even more in clients’ outcomes. That is a reliable recipe for burnout.

Ironically, even the way we have designed our profession has the potential to lead us toward unhealthy patterns. We meet with people and engage in what Thomas Skovholt called a “one-way caring relationship.” By design, we communicate to our clients that we care for and about them but do not expect those actions in return. It would, in fact, be inappropriate for our clients to be concerned about taking care of us in session. That is how we designed the counseling relationship, and it works. But for counselors, there is a risk that all of our relationships — at work and away from work — become one-way caring relationships, meaning there is no one caring for us. So, what are counselors to do?

One strategy I like to suggest to counselors and to students is to include a mindfulness break between sessions. Ask yourself: How am I feeling before I see the next student or client? Where am I feeling those feelings in my body? What am I expecting to happen? Am I willing to meet and accept what actually happens?

I also like to follow a “no shop talk” rule at lunch. It encourages me to both take a break from thinking about work and clients and to learn more about my wonderful colleagues. Staying engaged in lifelong learning by reading journals and attending workshops or conferences (I know of a great one coming up in Atlanta later this month) is another strategy that can help us feel better equipped to assist our clients.

I also believe in creating an end-of-the-day ritual that allows your mind and body to shut down who you are in the office and prepares you to become the “home” version of yourself. Some people do this by taking time to water the plants or organize their desks or by allowing themselves to think about work only until they arrive at a specific landmark on their commute home. Whatever the ritual, the idea is to leave work behind and to be fully present at home.

All of these strategies are designed to help you focus on self-care so that you can serve your clients well and avoid burnout. As cliché as it sounds, counselors need to work smarter, not harder. Focusing on your own thoughts, feelings and behaviors is working smarter, and that will benefit your clients too. More importantly, you deserve to be happy and well at work and at home. Take good care.