Who Helps the Helper?
Self-care and Professional Ethics
Most psychologists get into this profession because we get deep satisfaction from helping people. But who helps the helpers?
What about us, anyway? We sit for hour after hour, year after year, listening to our patients’ troubles. We help them make sense of what brings them to our office. We help them deepen their understanding of themselves, working with them to bring meaning and healing. But as psychologists, our training is not very conducive to our taking care of ourselves. The doctorate alone requires years of study, often at great expense, to say nothing of the 3,000 hours of unpaid or poorly pay internships, post-docs, and fellowships. It doesn’t end there; paying back debt and building a practice all take a toll on our self-care.
And of course, while dealing with these stresses, we must be effective and ethical therapists, even when clients may be testing our limits, perplexing us, or causing us worry.
A therapist’s most valuable tool is the therapist’s own self. We need to model a healthy self to our patients, and this is where self-care comes in. In fact, self-care is an ethical obligation to maintain our competence as psychologists. Caring for ourselves as well as others is an inherently integrated and reciprocal process. When we “more readily realize the false demarcations between ourselves and our clients, self-care becomes both an ethical imperative, and a humanistic one.”
So as a therapist, don’t forget to ask “What about me?” Issues that can challenge self-care include:
- Balancing our own and clients’ needs
- Countertransference reactions such as envy or erotic feelings
For example, let’s take envy, a problem that can loom large in this time of widening income inequality or for any therapist working with wealthier patients. No one likes to admit to these feelings, but denial is never a good strategy.
And this can especially be a problem if we feel stalled in our own lives. We’re in the trenches; meanwhile, we’re helping others live fuller lives. They write books, get fit, flourish. Good for them—but here we sit, with unfinished books, unexercised bodies, unexplored possibilities.
Here’s an example from practice. I had a patient with a lucrative professional job who came to me for anxiety. His wife was leading one of my dream lives, an unlived life: owning, showing, and riding horses. I thought “Damn, she is lucky.” I felt impatient with his problems and had to stop myself from telling him his wife should get a job. Because we have lots of training in recognizing when our reactions are countertransference, I was able to see my envy at the moment so as not to let it interfere with my client’s process.
Or again, I authorized a patient’s disability leave. He got four months of paid time off, lost 20 pounds, got a personal trainer, went on a luxurious retreat, and returned looking 15 years younger. Good for him again, but I was seeing 30 patients a week and couldn’t help contrasting my responsibilities with his fortune. For those of us in private practice, taking time off is tricky. We lose income, and our clients may have a hard time without the continuity of their therapy.
When our patients improve and surpass us, how do we deal with that? That’s our goal, after all, to help them attain full lives and be the best selves they can. It’s not their fault we haven’t achieved the same goals. We must move forward in our own lives if we’re going to maintain ethical principles and standards.
Another challenge can be secrecy. Keeping patients’ secrets is an ethical imperative, but not always easy. A very famous person came to me for something highly scandalous, something I was dying to tell—but even married to a psychologist, I could only mention broad strokes, no name, and no juicy details. It’d be a great story to tell at parties, but I have to keep all such secrets locked in a vault. It’s a peculiar situation to know more about the inner world of a very famous person than anyone else and not be able to tell a soul, but as an ethical psychologist, I can’t.
Heal Thyself, Know Thyself
The arduous, never-ending self-scrutiny and inner work required by our profession is like no other. Gaining deep intimacy with our clients requires us to be just as deeply familiar with our own feelings. As therapists, we’re already familiar with the value of therapeutic lifestyle changes in areas like exercise, nutrition, rest and relaxation, maintaining good relationships, and service to others. We recommend these to our clients, so we should also practice them ourselves, along with helpful interventions like apps to help monitor diet, movement, and sleep. To that list, we should add personal therapy and development for ourselves, not just clients.
This is because our work depends on the personal/professional therapeutic bond. In turn, this largely reflects and depends on the therapist’s interpersonal skills and capacities, which must be developed in the therapist’s personal growth. The link between ethics and self-care is professional competence, which is necessary to protect our patients. Clients’ experiences of the therapeutic relationship—the respective interpersonal capacities of the client and therapist—are among the strongest predictors of outcome in psychotherapy. Those of us who are reluctant to practice self-care techniques should remember that we are decreasing our competence as therapists.
More information on these principles can be found in the American Psychological Association’s “Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct.”
Taking care of ourselves
When we say we’re not taking care of ourselves, what does that mean? Examples include overbooking or double-booking clients and working late; taking no breaks; being distracted, impatient, or bored; giving clients the same exercise as last week; talking about your problems instead of the client’s; or falling asleep. As you can see, these actions affect clients as well as ourselves. If we’re not getting our needs met, we may look to our clients to meet them, a violation of their boundaries.
In our jobs, occupational hazards include isolation, demands on body and psyche, frustration, and never-ending self-scrutiny. Burnout, compassion fatigue, secondary traumatic stress, suicidal patients or our own suicidal feelings, depression, anxiety, boredom, conflicts with co-workers, practice logistics, insurance company hassle, money problems, personal losses—these can all add to professional stress. To cope, we need inner strength, self-soothing skills, and awareness of our own strengths and vulnerabilities.
Even when we’re well aware of the damages we’ve suffered, we can fall into the mistake of projecting all such woundedness onto patients, and claiming the role of healer—and healed—for ourselves. Self-knowledge helps prevent this trap. It’s also important to seek peer support through professional groups and other networks, social support from friends, and develop coping methods like cultivating humor and a positive attitude.
As psychologists, we live a life of service. We are always growing and our work protects us from stagnation. As Irvin Yalom states in his book The Gift of Therapy, we daily transcend our personal wishes and turn our gaze toward the needs and growth of the other. We take pleasure in the growth of our patients and also in the ripple effect–the salutary influence our patients have upon those whom they though in life. Viewed the right way, the very stresses of our job help prevent stagnation. Continual growth and self-examination help us to see the world, ourselves, and our patients for what they are, making us better able to help—which is what brought us into this field in the first place.
The result of my exploration on this topic is that I am taking a sabbatical during the month of January. I plan to write, read, and spend more time deepening my self-care.
In pursuit of wellness: The self-care imperative. Barnett, J. E., Baker, E. K., Elman, N. S., & Schoener, G. R. (2007). Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 38(6), 603–612. http://doi.org/10.1037/0735-7028.38.6.603
What Therapists Don’t Talk About and Why: Understanding taboos that hurt us and our clients. Kenneth S. Pope, PhD, Janet L. Sonne, PhD, and Beverly Greene, PhD Second Edition, APA Books, second edition, 2006.
Ethics, self-care and well-being for psychologists: Reenvisioning the stress-distress continuum. Wise, E. H., Hersh, M. A., & Gibson, C. M. (2012). Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 43(5), 487–494. http://doi.org/10.1037/a0029446
Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct. The American Psychologist, 57(12), 1060–1073. http://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.57.12.1060
—Susan J. O’Grady, Ph.D.