Finding Light in the Dark

How One Therapist Manages ‘Compassion Fatigue’ Through Self-Care

I am a mental health counselor in training. My work shows me every day that recovery is possible. People with extraordinary issues and life circumstances are finding connections, insight, and paths that give them meaning.

I spend two days a week at my clinical internship, which is a partial hospitalization program nestled within a hospital in western Massachusetts. Clients spend their days in various therapy groups which aim to stabilize people and equip them with the tools necessary to transition back to day-to-day life. They range from informational groups about different diagnoses and communication strategies to the functions of feelings and different coping techniques. Half of the clients are in treatment for mental health diagnoses and the other half are “dual diagnosis” which means they have at least one mental health and substance use disorder.

In order for me to be a successful counselor, very emotionally vulnerable people must find my presence and conversation comforting and nonjudgmental. People pay me to connect with them and provide them a safe space to share and explore themselves and all their emotional muck. To be a therapist means to ooze wise, confident, nurturing, sincere, charismatic, and inspirational energy to clients, who are depleted of these things, as they begin to piece back their life. What I love most about my work is being able to witness people living their beautiful, resilient, (sometimes ugly) truth. It’s fascinating and it’s fulfilling. It’s also emotionally exhausting.

Constantly working with other people’s humanity means acknowledging that I, too, am a humble human bean. Just like my clients, my previous life experiences make factors like someone’s gender, preferred level of eye contact, personal space bubble, tone of voice, way of speaking, and skin color influence how I will interpret them. Ideally, when I’m working, I’m in a state mindful openness. I meet all of my clients where they are and give them what the great humanist psychologist Carl Rogers described as ‘unconditional positive regard.’ It is my duty to stay present with my clients, understand, and respond appropriately and therapeutically to their reality.

It is impossible to do this emotionally laborious job alone or without any understanding of how I interpret my reality. To help understand my own lens means shining a light on my own emotional baggage. I am in therapy myself and have made some adjustments to boundaries in some of my personal relationships. I know I cannot come home from work and be a therapist in my personal life. Friends and family don’t pay me to listen to them, and it’s actually refreshing that I can openly be myself with them purely because I love them. It’s also different in my personal life because none of these people are asking for my professional help. A good friendship may feel like therapy but it is definitely not. I’m continuing to work on reshaping and communicating these expectations so that I don’t burn out on compassion fatigue. I cannot say/do the therapeutically correct thing all the time.

I am a person before I am anything else. The ability to do therapy hinges on self-care. When I refill my mental tank it gives me energy to stay grounded with my clients, who are typically very emotionally unstable. If I begin to lose sight of myself I risk getting sucked into all of the paranoid, anxious, depressed, chaotic emotions around me. All day I am learning about real human stories of struggle, loss, trauma, triumph, and doubt. That being said I also know that life is really, really fun. Sometimes you get to pet cats or write cool essays for blogs. I thrive on a healthy perspective of both the light and the dark. My self-care, recently, has been attending weekly comedy shows, prioritizing my sleep, dancing, weight lifting, reading, writing my gratitude list every night, spending time in nature, and most importantly treating myself to some good-ole mindless, childlike FUN.

Recently I went to a summer day camp for adults. The website described it as a one day opportunity for adults to “laugh so hard they can’t breathe” and to deeply connect with themselves, community and nature. While there, I skipped all of introspective activities (e.g., “Radical Self-Acceptance” and “Journaling 101”) and instead elected to try my hand at archery, paddleboarding, yoga, ziplining, and swimming in the lake. My gut was telling me that in order for me to continue to love and accept myself while wrestling my and others’ demons, I needed to come up for air from the muck of mental health.

It’s very challenging — but ultimately necessary — to include myself in the question I am constantly asking about my clients: “What does this person need?”