Avoiding Compassion Fatigue: 3 Strategies for Taking Back Control of Your Counselling Sessions

Posted by: Siri Brown on October 10, 2012 12:00 pm

When I first started counselling, I was of the belief that my clients, above all, needed a place to be heard.  So, being the good counselor I was, I listened.  And listened.  And reflected.  And recognized resilience and strengths.  And, when I could, tried to instill “hope”.  And my clients left satisfied, having vented, and most of all, having felt heard.  It was rogerian counselling all the way.

But then I started to burn out.  I was drained; began dreading certain clients’ appointments, and felt sucked into the trauma, pain, hopelessness and despair that accompanied many of those who came to me for help.  I knew, from what I’d learned in graduate school, that I was not just “meeting the client where they were at”, but joining them in those feelings.  I was a bandaid, not a healer.  And I was at a loss of what to do.

After several stress leaves, I began to seriously reconsider my counselling approach.  Yes, I could listen, yes I could empathisize, but was I actually helping my clients get better?  I realized that perhaps for me, the more passive, non-directive approach was not the best fit.  But what was?  I reflected on those clients that I did seem to help move forward, and also on my own experiences in therapy.  I began to take risks, set boundaries, and be more directive in sessions. 

The results were amazing!   My clients became more empowered and started to take responsibility for their own healing.  I noticed a shift in not only their energy, but my own.  My previous attempts at instilling hope, made through summarizing statements at the end of sessions, were replaced by pointed questions throughout our time together.  Below are three of the key ways that I found I was able to integrate a more directive helping style into my practice:

  1. Immediacy.  When you are feeling the client’s pain, “stuckness” or frustration, address it IN THE MOMENT.  Don’t make a mental note of it to be addressed in supervision later – step up, take a risk, and explore it.  Your clients are looking to you to model an honest, authentic, way of being.  Provide it.
  2. Mind/body techniques.  Whether you are highly trained in the wide variety of mind/body approaches out there or are just operating from the understanding that the mind and body are connected, use what you know to help your client make that connection.   Don’t of course operate outside your realm of competency, but, at the same time, have faith that you can work with your clients’ physical and physiological experiences.  It is all connected.
  3. Boundaries.  If a client is abusive, threatens you, is sexually suggestive or tries to manipulate you, set your boundaries!  I found this one of the MOST effective tools in preventing Compassion Fatigue.  I used to see all clients, thinking or hoping I could help them all; I was wrong.  We are not the best fit for everyone and it is okay to refer.  It is also okay to end sessions on time, limit phone call support, and even end counselling if you are not feeling safe. 

We are helpers, and pride ourselves on doing it well.  There is nothing wrong with that!  The problems arise when we sacrifice our own safety, self-respect, and well-being.  Modeling self-care is never a wrong move.  Plus, it will help you maintain your ability to continue helping others, which is, of course, what you were meant to do!

*The views expressed by our authors are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCPA

0 comments on “Avoiding Compassion Fatigue: 3 Strategies for Taking Back Control of Your Counselling Sessions”

  1. Dear Siri Brown,

    Thank you for offering such a comprehensive and intriguing article.

    May you have a truly blessed day.

    Warm Regards,

    Dr. Asa Don Brown

  2. alice says:

    Great article! Thanks.

  3. Good day, Siri!

    A timely discussion, as I tend to do a lot of reflection about my life around Thanksgiving. It is interesting to me that sometimes the most difficult thing in my practice is to be okay after setting what I belive is a healthy boundary around clients who are beyond my skill level and refer them on when they are frustrated and angry (and somewhat abusive). It can be a pivotal moment in therapy, and enhance the relationship when we work through the boundary challenges, although it often isn’t easy!

    Thank you for your wisdom, and your affirmation of the importance of setting boundaries. A timely reminder for myself to remember the importance of caring for the carer.

    Have a fabulous day, and a fantastic month!


  4. Linda Thompson says:

    Dear Siri – I thoroughly enjoyed this engaging, great article. Thanks & Regards Linda

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