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Always make self-care a priority

May 1, 2009
by Nicholas A. Roes, PhD
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In this business we've chosen, there is no way to separate counselor wellness from positive client outcomes. If we had chosen work in a widget factory, no matter how horrible or incomplete our lives were we'd still be able to turn out a high-quality widget. This is not so in the counseling business. Being happy and well-adjusted is a personal goal for all of us, but for counselors it is also a prerequisite for optimum performance on the job.

We all have experienced having a bad day that lowered the quality of interactions with our clients. Since we interact in an intimate way with other human beings, our wellness is important to their success.

We have a responsibility as role models. Modeling an unhappy, stressed-out existence is not likely to inspire our clients to embrace the benefits of sobriety. Staying focused and aware and able to pick up on non-verbal cues is also closely linked to successful counseling.

Knowing that our every thought and mood can affect the lives of others constitutes a huge responsibility. This can either inspire us to be the best we can be or lead us to collapse under the pressure. The happier and more in control of things we are, the better we can do our jobs. So nurturing, rewarding and satisfying ourselves is not selfish. Rather, it is a prerequisite of our chosen profession.

Not immune from problems

The American Counseling Association's Taskforce on Counselor Wellness and Impairment ( notes that counselors often are reluctant to speak openly about the ways they might be feeling stressed, distressed and even impaired. A common myth in the field is that counselors educated in the helping professions are somehow immune from problems of their own, or at least less susceptible. This myth is often compounded by the belief that counselors should be able to overcome their problems without seeking help themselves.

There are many available resources for counselors who are impaired. “Impaired” in this context is usually used to mean that a counselor has passed a specific threshold and is now a threat to his/her clients. There comes a point when the counselor's own problems render him/her unfit for the job.

I want to focus here on being preventive, to help you keep that beginner's enthusiasm for your work while you gather experience that makes you better. The slightest lapse should be addressed before it becomes a real problem. The first step is to get in touch and stay in touch with what is motivating you.

Almost everyone who comes to this work comes motivated to achieve outcome goals, such as helping others put their lives back together. We realize that to achieve these goals we also need to attend to some process goals (for example, maintaining our license). As we deal with insurance coverage, regulatory compliance and Medicaid audits, we might lose sight of our outcome goals. When we feel as if our jobs have become too process-oriented and not enough outcome-oriented, we are more likely to experience burnout.

It is easy to get lost in the pressures of scheduled sessions, chart notes and chart audits. We can lose sight of why we chose this field and, rather than focus on helping our clients reclaim their lives, begin to focus more on getting through each day-until getting through each day becomes our only goal.

When we experience problems such as going through a messy divorce or losing a loved one, there usually is an awareness that this is bound to affect our jobs and that we must proceed cautiously. But when our problems are more ordinary, such as when we have a fight with a spouse or when a loved one is in the hospital, we don't always notice that it takes a toll on our interactions with our clients.

What you can do

Stop and ask yourself, “Is what I am doing now contributing to a positive client outcome?” When you can answer “yes,” you naturally will feel better about what you're doing. If your answer is “no,” then you need to be doing something different or work to understand how what you are doing is important to positive outcomes.

Pay attention to small changes in how you are feeling and how you are relating to others. Too often it is not until we have gotten over a problem that we even realize we had it. We look back and realize that we weren't at our best. The challenge is to develop the self-awareness necessary to notice the first sign of stress or dissatisfaction.

Nicholas a. roes, phd

Nicholas A. Roes, PhD

Set and keep sensible boundaries. Assess and if necessary adjust your boundaries, including those with your clients and with your place of work. Be on guard for being overly involved in the lives of your clients or your place of business.

Find and keep balance in your life by identifying the formula that works best for you. How much of yourself do you give to your family, your community and your job, and how much do you keep for yourself? The answers to these questions will change during the course of your career, and you must adjust how you do things accordingly.

Counselors' programs also can help them avoid burnout, becoming partners in counselor wellness. Making an arrangement with an employee assistance program and encouraging all staff to use it pays great dividends. When employees have the opportunity to consult the EAP to help with financial problems, legal problems or other personal issues, it often eliminates the need for a management referral to the EAP at a later date.