Burnout is a product of a lack of mindfulness. It’s really that simple, and if you can increase your mindfulness in daily life and work you will dramatically decrease your chances of burning out in whatever endeavor you are pursuing. We are going to be speaking in the context of mental health counseling because burnout is so common in our line of work, but these ideas are applicable for everyone.
When we talk about mindfulness, what we mean is a heightened awareness of Self, specifically your thoughts, emotions, and immediate environment. It is being fully present. It means you are able to note small changes in equilibrium, giving you the opportunity to take care of them before they become big changes. The mindful attitude is really the ability to be a fully involved subjective participant and a fully involved objective observer at the same time. This duality is something that good therapists and counselors have down to a science. You’ve got to be able to be right there with your client and form a real connection while at the same time be able to process and analyze everything that is going on from a distance.
Most people go into the mental health field with noble intentions, but like a shooting star blazing across the night sky, they burn brightly for a short time before fizzling out and dying. They have the subjectively involved part down perfectly. What they lack is the ability to see their situation objectively at the same time. A gap almost always exists between their subjective expectations and the reality of the situation. This gap will probably exist regardless of the career you choose. We usually put on rose colored glasses when we are excited about a new endeavor, seeing all the positives and envisioning all the potential without accounting for the myriad difficulties and stumbling blocks along the way. The mindful attitude combats this naive optimism and lets us appreciate and enjoy reality instead.
Too much subjective involvement in the lives of clients is a huge reason for burnout. Young practitioners take stories home with them, turning them over and over in their minds, staying up nights worrying about possible scenarios that have not yet come to pass. They are being anything but mindful. They fret about the future or the past, and they exist horizontally in some other person’s life instead of inhabiting their own. They obsess. They try to do everything and be everything for their clients. They think they can keep on this trajectory forever. Their overall quality of life starts to suffer as the lives of other people take priority over their own.
Balance in all things is usually the answer, and our topic of our conversation is no exception. The mindful attitude allows you to realize something. Your first priority is to yourself. It’s like how flight attendants always instruct adults to take care of their own oxygen mask before assisting their children. If you are not healthy and happy you are not going to be of much use to anyone else, especially when the goal is to help them be healthy and happy. When you are mindfully present you notice small changes in your emotional states, thoughts flickering at the edge of your conscious awareness, and you respond to them right away instead of letting them fester. The snowball is squashed before it gets rolling.
You’ve got to be able to feel attached to your clients yet be able to detach, realizing that ultimately you are not responsible for their lives or choices. The best you can be is a helpful guide who provides insight and support, setting the necessary conditions for them to make their own positive life choices and improve their situations. Constantly fretting and obsessing over what they are doing to the detriment of your own life and relationships doesn’t help anyone and in fact it’s harmful, because the people in your bubble, including you, are going to suffer.
Take a step back and realize that while your contribution is extremely important, it only represents a tiny slice in the week of a client. The way to insure your longevity in the field and be truly helpful to people is by being able to detach, letting the lives of clients fade to the background when you are not dealing directly with them. Give yourself the love and support you are trying to give the people you are working with and everyone will be better off.