Therapists tend to be empathetic and sensitive—which is both an asset and a challenge when working with people experiencing emotional pain. When we absorb too much of our clients’ suffering, our own emotional and physical health can be negatively affected, and we’re susceptible to compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma.
To keep ourselves healthy and effective as therapists, we need a well-functioning emotional boundary between ourselves and our clients. We want to let in enough of our clients’ emotions that we can respond empathetically, but not so much that we’re bogged down in feelings of hopelessness, shame, grief, or other painful emotions.
These ideas can help you avoid or cope with absorbing your clients’ pain:
- Create an end-of-the-day routine that helps you leave your clients’ emotions at work. You might do a short meditation to clear your mind or simply say to yourself, “I’m leaving my clients’ pain here. I don’t need to take it home.”
- Separate your work and personal spaces. If possible, don’t bring work home with you, and if you must, use a dedicated workspace. If you work from home, keep your office door closed during off-hours to remind yourself that work (including the emotional load) stays in the office, not in your personal space.
- When we absorb too much of our clients’ pain, we need ways to release it. It’s helpful to have practices that you can do between sessions (such as listening to relaxing music, stretching, giving yourself a neck massage, doing some breathing exercises, or a body scan) and throughout the week. Some find vigorous exercise effective. Journaling or talking with colleagues or a therapist can also help you clarify whether your stress or pain is rooted in your feelings or your clients (or perhaps both).
Sharon Martin, MSW, LCSW, is a licensed psychotherapist in San Jose, CA, specializing in helping individuals struggling with perfectionism, codependency, and people-pleasing using cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), mindfulness, and self-compassion. Martin is author of The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism, writes the Conquering Codependency blog for Psychology Today, and is a regular media contributor on emotional health and relationships.