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How to Help Caretakers From Burning Out

Providing consensual care is why being a therapist is not deeply depressing.

Key points

  • Without proper self-care, a caretaker can be left exhausted and burned out.
  • Caretaking that leaves you feeling depleted is usually non-consensual care. Consensual care makes you feel more connected and helpful.
  • If caretaking is nonconsensual, discuss changing the rules and expectations or consider ending the relationship.
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I spend five days each week listening to people’s problems, traumas, and regrets. I talk with them about their smallest worries and their biggest fears.

If I’m not careful, my work as a therapist will leave me feeling exhausted at the end of each day. Fortunately, a way to take care of people will keep you from burning out. I’ll share two of the most important lessons I’ve learned as a therapist so you can help people you care about without being overwhelmed by their problems.

There are different types of care.

Take a moment to envision what it’s like to be a therapist. If you’re feeling empowered and rewarded, you’re thinking about one type of care. If you’re feeling drained and run down, you’re thinking of another kind.

Like foods with good cholesterol and bad cholesterol, regular fires, and grease fires, Michael Jackson from the Jackson 5 and solo career Michael Jackson, the two types of care are technically the same, but their qualities are very different.

Caretaking that leaves you feeling depleted is usually non-consensual care. Caretaking that makes you feel more connected and helpful is consensual care. These types of care aren’t binary. They exist along a spectrum. Consensual care has clear boundaries, rules, and expectations, and both parties voluntarily agree to whatever needs to occur for one person to feel better. Nonconsensual care is the exact opposite. There are unclear boundaries, rules, and expectations; one person isn’t completely volunteering for this arrangement, and another is being hurt somehow.

Here are a few examples to explain the different ways care can be spread along this spectrum:

  • A tip for really good service vs. an automatic twenty percent gratuity.
  • Choosing overtime for extra money vs. being asked to work overtime or you’ll be fired.
  • A planned pregnancy vs. an unplanned pregnancy.

Another way to understand this concept is to look at consensual vs. non-consensual violence. If you agree to a clear set of rules and expectations, then violence is not only permitted, but it can be a bonding experience. Martial arts, pranks, and BDSM are just a few examples. Conversely, violence is nonconsensual and unpredictable if you start a fight with a stranger. Anything you do toward someone impacts you based on the receiver’s reaction.

Giving someone a hug or punching someone in the face are not inherently good or bad actions. It depends on what the other person wants. An example is Carol Gilligan’s work that conceptualizes care as an experience between people and not just something one person does to another.

When you start giving someone unwanted advice, or you’re coerced into helping someone, it positively impacts one person but negatively impacts the other. On the other hand, it positively impacts both people when one gets the help they ask for. One person receives the help they want, and the other feels rewarded with gratitude or appreciation. But the only way to ensure both are on the same page is through conversation and communication.

This brings me to the second important lesson.

If caretaking is nonconsensual, you should have a conversation to change the rules and expectations or consider ending the relationship.

Take another moment to envision what it’s like to be a therapist. You might think you have to help people with all kinds of problems all day. In reality, I usually choose who I get to help, when we talk, how long we talk, and both the client and I choose what we talk about. Both of us voluntarily enter the relationship and voluntarily enter each session.

Any of those conditions can change. For example, either the client or I could start showing up late or missing appointments. Either of us could begin to talk too much about something the other person doesn’t think is helpful. Or perhaps one of us tries to extend the session longer than the normal time. There’s no limit to the number of obstacles that might get in the way of consensual care in a relationship.

Care can turn from consensual to nonconsensual very subtly. Maybe I’m feeling sick and should have canceled clients for the day, but I decided to power through it. As the day progresses, I start to feel worse and worse. Then I might begin to feel resentment towards clients who aren’t coming fully prepared or aren’t talking about what I think is important to talk about. Because I reluctantly started my work day, I’ve put this consensual care closer to nonconsensual care.

Whether the change is something subtle, like the example above, or something more obvious, like a client who wants a service, I don’t typically provide. Negotiation has to occur to see if we can reset the relationship. There’s not always someone to blame when care becomes non-consensual. The root cause may be out of either person’s control. But determining whether or not the relationship should continue is something both sides have to agree on.

You’ve just read two of the most important lessons I use as a therapist to keep me from being unnecessarily angry, hurt, or run down by my work. Use these ideas to your advantage. The next time your parents are overbearing, or you're trying to help a friend, but they aren’t listening, check in to change the type of care.

I’d recommend either of these statements:

If you’re getting a type of help that you don’t want or need, you can say:

“I’m not really looking for help or advice, I’m looking for ______________”

If someone isn't offering your suggestion for help, you can ask:

“Do you want my help with this? Or do you want something else from me?”

I hope you learn from my mistakes and that you’re more mindful when you’re offering help from now on.