I was somewhere between Marrickville and Petersham when I started crying in my car.
I had just finished my second session with Kyle: a dad with a masters degree whose life had been completely derailed by a bipolar episode and several months of hospitalisation.
On that day, Kyle and I met at a cafe to speak about what we could work on together. He hadn’t been out of hospital for long - less than three months - but he really wanted to be doing something because he knew that volunteering, even one day a week, was going to keep him healthy.
On paper, Kyle sounds like a dream client. He was super motivated. Kind. Collaborative. Intelligent.
He was like a unicorn, if unicorns could take out income protection policies.
The kind of client who (1) I knew I could help and (2) actually wanted it.
And this is exactly the reason why I found myself crying inside my beat-up Mazda 3 after our session.
Because it wasn’t fair.
It wasn’t fair that severe mental illness had robbed Kyle of 5 years of his life - his marriage, his kids, his job, his health.
It wasn’t right that someone who hadn’t done anything wrong spent the next 3 years trying to find a balance between medications and treatment that did the job without making him feel like a zombie with tremors.
It was wrong that Kyle went from having a successful career to being a patient in a psych ward.
It wasn’t fair.
Being a health professional requires you to face the harsh realities of life and cruel tricks that fate likes to play on us:
The injustices, the mistreatments, the follies of our healthcare and compensation systems.
Many of our clients are people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, people who fell through the cracks, people who just got a raw deal and are suddenly facing a life they didn’t plan for.
As a case manager, it’s all too easy to become the person who shoulders that burden for your clients.
As a rehab counsellor in my twenties, who has lived a privileged and, let’s be honest, a very sheltered life, I have always been confronted by the hardships my clients face. Sometimes that burden and sadness can culminate in the driver's seat of your car as you drive back to work after a session.
Sometimes that burden is more insidious.
It can be a feeling of heaviness in your chest and in your heart that becomes hard to shake. Maybe your feet start to move a little more slowly as you get ready for work in the morning and prepare for the day ahead. Maybe it feels like that fiery passion you had for helping people just doesn’t burn so bright any more.
That’s how empathy burnout feels.
There are so many things you can do to look after yourself when you start to feel this way. You’re already doing well if you can recognise empathy burnout for what it is and notice when you start to slip into this place.
And yes, in the short term at least, taking breaks (even, dare I say it, a holiday or two) and making time for self-care will always give you a boost.
But there is a fundamental shift in our thinking that we all need to make if we want to beat this thing - because shouldering the burden for our clients has never helped anyone, ever (source: science).
I keep a little post-it note in my notebook to remind me of this every day:
I didn’t get my client into this, and I definitely can’t get them out of it. But I can choose to walk beside them and help, and they can choose to say yes.
It seems almost too obvious to see it written there - but it’s true. How often do we expect ourselves to be The Fixer of All That is Broken and make all the bad stuff go away? To help, to make it better and BE REALLY MAD about how unfair everything is? (Uh - I hope it’s not just me here?)
Imagine if, before every session, you reminded yourself that while you don’t have the power to fix things, you have something even more incredible: the opportunity to offer your client support and guidance while they take back control of their life - if they choose to accept it?
...(Big fat emphasis on the choice element here, guys.)
And if you need it - here’s a gentle nudge to remind you that you’re not the most important expert in the room, anyway.
P.S. Kyle is a fake name. Client confidentiality is kind of a big deal.