Posted by: counselorcarmella | August 2, 2012

Coping Emotionally With Being A Counselor

I am often asked how I “do” my job as far as  handling it emotionally. Its not easy. Some days, I don’t “do it” well at all. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining. I love what I do. Most days, I can’t imagine wanting to  do anything else. I believe God called me to this work. That’s the first thing.  I do this  because  I believe I was  spiritually lead to do it.  It is part of my life’s purpose.  I spent years in school so I could do exactly what I’m doing now. I’m proud to be able to say, “I’m a counselor.” Most of the time, I believe in what counseling is and does and how it can help people. I feel honored that clients  trust me with  the details of their  lives this way. I consider it  a privlege to be asked to offer  guidance and support during a time of pain or stress. I meet so many fascinating people and   get to see each one’s uniqueness and strengths, as well as their problems.
It is hard work, though. Burnout, compassion fatigue, and vicarious traumatization are common among those in mental health  professions.  Self care and  self awareness are vital. I try and do the things I recommend to  clients as far as stress management (exercise,  spending alone time or q time with a partner, journaling,  being outside on a nice day, reading, etc.) Whatever helps you deal with other types of worry or intrusive thoughts will help you with thoughts and feelings about clients and their situations, too. 
I  talk a lot with clients about co existing with their feelings, being in the moment, and  using healthy distraction techniques. I try to do these things for myself also. I also know when I need to  seek out counseling for myself, when to talk with a physician, and when to  let  my boss know I’m having a harder time due to other circumstances in my  life.  Knowing when to ask for help is very important in this line of work.  We’re good at giving it but not always as good at admitting we need it or receiving it. 
I like the idea of  little rituals, such as  consciously leaving the day/session  behind when walking out of the office,  using the ride home to transition,  changing out of work clothes, etc.  Someone mentioned  turning off the lights and consciously touching the door frame as a  tactile cue that  work is done for the day.  I like that idea. These are conscious choices to leave work  in its place until the next day.  I also believe in taking time off for vacations, holidays, or  when sick. 
Each counselor also has to decide  what they can handle in terms of a caseload.  Some people can see 30 or more clients a week and provide  good care to all of them.  I’m not one of those people.  I get  distracted and overwhelmed.  I’ve found that I am a quality vs quantity person.  I  have to  know how hard I can push myself given my own  energy level, personality, and  stress tolerance and set boundaries around that to protect my resources.  I want the clients I have to get the best counseling I can give them.  That’s about self care, practicing what I preach, and also about ethics. Its not  right for me to try and  over extend myself and then not be  effective with the cases I have.  
One  thing that helps me is having a “bigger picture” perspective. Some days are very hard and frustrating and I’m not sure I’m doing anyone any good.  There are occasionally days when I wonder if this is what I’m supposed to be doing and if I’ll be able to keep doing it. I feel  drained on a soul level. Those are the worst days. Sometimes, there are even several of those in a row. Clients are  having crises, I’m getting requests for records, people are calling needing to talk with me, paperwork is piling up, etc. But then, other days are easier.  A session (or sessions) goes really well and I feel  good about what I’m doing.  Some days are very busy.  Others are not as busy and I have a minute to catch up on paperwork, breathe, and  regroup a little.  I appreciate the “easier” days and  remind myself  on the hard days that not every day is like that.  
Some cases take a lot of energy, but many  don’t.  Not everyone is in the middle of a massive crisis. I talk with people in all kinds of situations. Some are  fairly typical, such as an adolescent  arguing with his/her parents or a couple having communication issues. Sometimes, a client comes in  because they’re just having some emotional trouble around a life transition and need someone to  give them  a few suggestions and   allow them to talk about their feelings.  With these cases,  they come in a few times, I offer support and  some ideas/thoughts to help  matters, and they’re done with counseling. They go on about their lives  knowing they can always come back if they need to.
I’m thankful for such cases because they’re fairly straight forward and  I’m more likely to see the good outcome, and because I’d never be able to keep doing this if every session was a crisis session. It’s so rewarding when  I see someone becoming more emotionally healthy and  experiencing relational healing.  Those moments mean a lot to me and are what keep me  doing what I’m doing. I’ve heard that dogs that are trained to search for bodies will actually get depressed if they  are never allowed to find a living person.  I think counselors are the same way.  We want to see progress and clients making healthier choices and good things happening.  We want to weep with those who weep, metaphorically speaking usually in this case, but we also want to rejoice with those who rejoice.
Some days, I have to make decisions about how to help someone who has lost all hope and  wants to end their life or who is so depressed or anxious that they can barely get out of bed or leave their home.  I  hear stories of childhood physical and sexual abuse and abandonment by the parents  who should have been providing nurturing and protection.  Such scars follow these children into adulthood and are still impacting their current relationships and  emotions. I hear stories of  horrible loss and grief over the death of a loved one. Clients share their experiences of having lost jobs, hobbies, and even families due to unexpected injury or illness. I sit with clients as they cry and talk about the  emotional and physical cruelty they  experienced  by their spouse or about the shatterred trust of marital infidelity. I listen to teens who talk about feeling misunderstood and lonely and who resort to  cutting themselves to deal with the pain they’re feeling. I listen to parents expressing their frustration and hurt about  their child’s choices.
 It can be very  emotionally difficult and exhausting to sit with a lot of emotional pain day after day, though. I often feel at a loss for how to help or what to say and sometimes feel frustrated or overwhelmed.  At times, I wonder if the work I do makes a real difference for those I try to serve in my role as counselor.  The help I offer seems like the tiniest drop in the bucket when it comes to the desperate and complicated situations some clients are facing and the  amount of help they need.
How to not  feel drained after certain sessions or “take things home” emotionally  is a tough  issue.  I agree with other counselors  who’ve said that a certain amount of this is natural.  We  connect with clients on a human level, on an emotional level, and are going to be  impacted by some of their stories. We are going to have emotional reactions at times. Sometimes, this means good feelings when we feel we’ve been helpful or see a client doing better. Other times, it is more negative emotions such as worry, sadness, or frustration. For all of us, I think, some cases get to us more than others for various reasons. Counselors do have personal feelings and  some issues or situations hit closer to home so that our reactions are more personal.  We  feel sad or angry or even taken advantage of at times.  We need to admit that and be willing to talk about it.  
Some things I hear are very disturbing and worth being troubled about. Personally, I don’t want to ever get to the place where I feel nothing when clients are sharing their struggles.  I don’t want to get to the point where nothing that is said bothers me.  That level of detachment would make it seem like I was just phoning in my  participation in sessions.  I don’t want to be callous to human suffering.  I can’t overreact but I don’t want to go the opposite extreme and become numb either.   
Clients can tell when a counselor is not engaged with them, too.  The relationship  is  crucial to help and healing.  It is powerful and  creating that connection is one of the most important things any counselor does.  Clients need to feel cared about.  They know when their counselor doesn’t really  have concern for them.  If I tried to “fake it,” clients would know.  More importantly, I would know. I am totaly there with most clients  most of the time. I value each of them as an individual with unique experiences and  ways of being.  No one is just a case number or  “that person with such and such problem.”  They’re  people to me and I want to be able to fully appreciate each of them for  the God-created beings they are.
I experience  various emotions during any given session in response to what the client is saying. This helps me to respond with true empathy and  helps clients sense that I truly am “with them” as they relate experiences. I am aware of my own feelings, but what I  pay more  attention to is what I am thinking. I  stay very mentally engaged while  they talk because I am constantly assessing and  processing. This keeps me on a clinical level. After all, to  go totaly personal/emotional would take me out of my role as a counselor and put me in more of a “friend” role. It would also use up too much of my energy and I need enough for all of my clients. 
When I’m with a client, I am aware that this person is not my friend or family member or significant other. I care about them but it is a business relationship, albeit a personal one.  I think of it as “clinical caring.” I  am paid to provide certain services.  I know  the relationship is most likely temporary, confined to my office, and a clearly defined counselor/client relationship.  My  concern is real but it is grounded in the professional relationship, not my personal life. If I met this person while in the role of counselor, that automatically puts the relationship into a certain box.  They have my office number, not my personal phone number. Office # = business. Cell or home phone = more personal.  A client is a client, no matter how much I like them personally.
Some clients  seem to  be more draining. Once I realize this is happening everytime they come in, I make a conscious mental effort to think energy conservation and not let them  take it all. Energy has to be shared among  all my clients and I also need some for personal things. Sometimes, I just don’t feel that I’m being very helpful or effective and am working  much harder than the client is.  In those situations, it helps to talk with a colleague or  supervisor about the case to try and figure out how to get unstuck.  Maybe a different approach is needed. Maybe its time to refer the client to someone else.  Every situation is different, but getting an outside perspective can help.  
I do tend to  need a lot of alone time due to being an introvert but I also remind myself that my personal relationships are different from my  relationships where I am in “counselor mode.” I feel like I am somewhat different in that professional mode. I am more outgoing and  confident and  purposeful as to why I am with them.  I know how much time I have to spend with them and  what my role is. It’s  just one aspect of who I am, not separate from the rest of me, but my professional persona to an extent.  I  am different, and should be, with family and friends and when by myself. Its a feeling I have.  I can put personal issues aside at work to a great extent, though not entirely, and be “Carmella the Capable Counselor” who is there to help others and accomplish certain administrative tasks. I guess it is compartmentalization in a healthy way.
A huge part of my  self care is spiritual. I pray for my clients.  Sometimes, this means by name,  and other times, it is prayers for strength and wisdom and peace.  I pray that our work would be productive and that  God would use the counseling relationship for good in the clients’ lives.  I  pray that I will know how to be an effective helper.  Sometimes, if a client comes to mind while  I am not in session with them, I will say a quick prayer for that person, consciously turning over that relationship and whatever unrest I feel,  to God.  I know He  knows what they need far better than I do and that I’m just  getting to be a small part of His  work in their lives.  I believe this whether clients do or not and it is a great comfort to me.  No one comes to see me by chance or accident.  I may not know  for sure if anything i said or did made any difference but I know seeds were planted and can trust God with the outcome. Usually, I don’t know what happens to clients after  they have  stopped meeting with me for counseling. I often wonder about certain people  and can take a moment to think of them and pray for them again.  I can hope they’re doing well and know that God knows how they  are and what they need. 
On a related note to all this, I found out a client I hadn’t seen in a while recently passed away.  A family member left me a voicemail letting me know. The client had a chronic health condition but was doing as well as could be expected last time we met.  He primarily came to see me about  relationship concerns, not health issues, and said last time we met that he didn’t think he needed to come back in the near future but would call if something came up.  I was in agreement.  Visits had become more sporatic anyway and I saw that as a good and healthy thing.  We’d worked together off and on for  about 2 years.
When I heard of his passing, I felt surprised and then sad.  I wondered what finally happened, hoped he didn’t  suffer, and said a prayer for his family.  I took a minute or a few to remember him. We had a good working relationship and I’d found him intelligent, insightful,  and  interesting. I feel good about the counseling work we did.  I think I was of some help to him during a difficult time. I am glad our lives intersected and  feel that I learned some things from him, too.  I was glad to have had the chance to know him as a client. I can have closure about that situation.  I spoke to a supervisor about it  and processed a little and also spoke to a family member, without going into any specifics, of course.  I think all that is healthy.
No two people ever walk away the same after  an interaction of any substance. Counseling delves into some deep waters.  At its best, it is truly a dialogue, not just me  saying profound things. The back and forth  of how therapeutic conversations unfold is part of what I love about what I do. Some conversations just have a more profound impact than do others.  I’m professional, but I’m not immune due to the fact that I am still human after all, and did get into this work  because I enjoy   meaningful dialogue with people. 
Just as I can be profoundly disturbed by something I’m told, I can be profoundly touched and encouraged. 
I think most of us just don’t  realize the impact we can be having on another person at any given time for good or for  not so good. These clients  see me as the one helping and encouraging them.  They  have no idea how they are also being used by God to minister to me at times.  Its just a neat thing. I’m  not saying the therapy is about me, ever.  It isn’t.  I don’t look to my clients to validate me or to get my  emotional needs met. It is just that some sessions, or parts of sessions,  do feel affirming and refreshing for me personally and I am greatful for those.
I may validate the health or the importance of  what the client is saying, but I’m not likely to express to them how  it effects me  on a more personal level.  That’s for me to think about and  to  incorporate into my own life, but it does happen. I guess allowing myself to learn from, and be blessed by, clients  means I’m colaborative and that I  don’t see myself as the only person in the room who knows anything about healthiness. I guess it means I allow myself to be human enough to say, “That’s just so cool and I’m okay with being impacted by it.”  It means I’m existing in the “and” of being both a therapist and a person and holding those two parts of myself in balance while allowing both to be present, at least internally. Those bright spots, where I actually admire or respect  something a client is doing and am “inspired” to be more healthy myself because of the health I see in them are just really special moments, I guess. Now, admittedly, these are often the clients who are more  healthy and well adjusted overall, who are highly verbal and are easy to work with and  respond to counseling and  appreciate my efforts. Not always, though, and they might not have started out that way.
This isn’t something I thought would happen in my role as counselor.  I knew  experience with different clients would strengthen my skills as a therapist but I could not have fathomed the personal impact. Its a happy  surprise that it does happen sometimes.  I learn from clients.  I gain perspective and find new ways of finding sstrength and purpose by being part of their journey.  I  grow as a person.  God uses them in my life just as He uses me in theirs.  I share  difficult things with them but I laugh with them, too.  This is humbling  to me and  reminds me that we’re  just two people working  together who each bring something to the table.  Its not my job to have all the answers or to “fix” them.  That’s not a counselor’s role and  change is really  God’s doing anyway.  That means  less pressure on me.      
So,  those are some of the answers to  how I “do it” as a counselor.  Some days, all that helps more than others, but I’m still “doing it” and hope to  for a long time.


  1. Wow Carmella that was inspiring.

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