As a therapist, you spend your days helping people work through a variety of crises. Your clients share their experiences, which might involve anything from workplace bullying to financial distress to severe mental health symptoms, and you offer guidance and support as they begin working to overcome these challenges.
Some of your clients might be surprised to learn you face struggles similar to their own, since providing effective therapy involves offering empathic support without disclosing your personal experience.
But of course, you’re human, just as they are, and personal distress is generally part of the human experience. Most people experience tragedies and losses throughout life, including:
- Breakup or divorce
- The death of a loved one
- Family or relationship issues
- A severe, life-threatening, or terminal illness
- Serious mental health symptoms
With your professional training and compassionate nature, empathy may come naturally to you. But nothing can completely insulate you against experiencing distress of your own. By taking steps to support and care for yourself when you’re struggling, however, you can keep that distress from affecting your work in the therapy room.
Dos and Don’ts for Therapists in Personal Crisis
The field of psychotherapy can be intense, complex, and often isolating. Even so, you may enjoy your work and find it deeply rewarding, in spite of any occasional challenges it brings. Certain situations or life events, however, may leave you less present to face the emotional demands of your work.
You might wonder whether it’s ethical (or even possible) to continue supporting people in need of help when weathering the storms of life yourself. While it’s important to take your specific circumstances into account, the following tips can help you keep in mind some best practices for providing therapy during times of personal difficulty.
Don’t bottle up your feelings.
Imagine you’re working with a client who has a hard time expressing their emotions. You’d probably encourage them to try getting more comfortable talking about their feelings and teach coping skills to help them achieve this goal.
Why? Because you know suppressing emotions usually doesn’t work. When you suppress emotions, you can’t address them productively. But they don’t go away, either, so they continue to affect your mood, linger in your thoughts, and even leak out in your interactions with others.
This guidance applies to you, too.
Do practice self-care and work through the pain using healthy outlets.
Instead of keeping back your emotions, try incorporating meditation or other mindfulness practices into your day. These approaches can help you acknowledge and accept your feelings without getting trapped by them.
Other positive coping methods include:
- Seeking support from loved ones
- Physical activity
- Spending time in nature
- Creating art
- Listening to or creating music
It’s also important to continue tending to your physical needs. In times of distress, it’s common to overwork, lose sleep, or become disinterested in eating or preparing nutritious meals. But not taking care of yourself physically can make it even harder to stay present for yourself and those you help.
Don’t unload the issue on clients or use clients as your emotional support system.
At best, sharing your personal distress with clients is unhelpful to their success in therapy. At worst, it’s problematic and potentially unethical behavior. If you find yourself in a place where you want to seek support from clients, you may want to consider scheduling some time off. This could be a sign that you’ve become isolated and lack a strong support system.
It may also help to schedule some time off if:
- Your mood toward clients becomes impatient or irritable
- You often zone out or become distracted during therapy
- Client issues are similar enough to yours that they trigger further distress
Do open up to trusted loved ones or your own therapist.
Navigating your own emotional concerns while experiencing your clients’ distress secondhand can be extremely difficult. It can help to express these feelings to people who understand—not your clients.
Instead, reach out to:
- Friends and family members
- Your therapist
- Trusted colleagues
Talking through your situation with people in a position to offer support and guidance can help you feel less alone, even if there’s no immediate solution.
Don’t skip sessions without notice OR force yourself through difficult days.
If you, like many therapists, have a no-show policy, try to stick to it yourself. Whenever possible, notify your clients at least a day in advance if you believe you may not make it to your session.
That said, if your emotional state prevents you from providing effective therapy, you shouldn’t try to make it through a session. Doing so won’t help you or your client, and it could damage the therapeutic relationship. If you need to cancel, you can let your clients know “unavoidable circumstances” have kept you from the session and offer to reschedule the appointment at their earliest convenience (provide them with a number of a colleague to call if they need to address immediate distress).
Do take time away from work if needed.
Therapists deserve time off, too, and it’s especially important to take the time you need to work through difficult issues, grief, or health concerns, since these can all have an impact on your ability to support others.
However, since people do depend on you for support during their weekly sessions, it’s important to connect with a trusted colleague who can work with your clients if you unexpectedly need to take more than a few days off.
If you know you’re in a situation where some days may hit harder than others, it may also help to find a colleague who can cover sessions with only a little notice. That way, if you’re having a particularly rough day, you know your clients won’t be left without any support.
Don’t doubt yourself.
It’s perfectly normal to have moments of self-doubt. Everyone has them, even therapists. You might wonder how you can help anyone when you’re in distress. If you’re going through a divorce, for example, you might wonder what clients seeking help with relationships would think of your work together, if they knew.
Trusting your own abilities is easier said than done, especially in times of challenge. But your experience and training can guide you, especially if you put the coping skills you teach others to work for yourself.
Do practice acceptance and self-compassion.
Life’s myriad twists and turns help us grow, and learning how to stay strong in the face of adversity is part of what makes us human. You might struggle with difficult, painful things. You might not know how to overcome them, but those are very human feelings, and you are human.
It’s natural to fear and want to avoid dark or distressing feelings. But working to accept these emotions instead can help you come to terms with them and begin working through them in productive ways. Try reminding yourself that it’s normal to have pain. It doesn’t mean you’re any less of a person—or therapist.
- Barnett, J. E. (2014). Distress, burnout, self-care, and the promotion of wellness for psychotherapists and trainees: Issues, implications, and recommendations. Retrieved from https://societyforpsychotherapy.org/distress-therapist-burnout-self-care-promotion-wellness-psychotherapists-trainees-issues-implications-recommendations
- Curd, E. (2018, March 23). When therapists struggle. American Counseling Association. Retrieved from https://www.counseling.org/news/aca-blogs/aca-member-blogs/aca-member-blogs/2018/03/23/when-therapists-struggle
- Kooperman, D. (2018, April 30). When the therapist is in crisis: Personal and professional implications for small community psychotherapy practices. The American Journal of Psychotherapy, 67(4), 309-411. Retrieved from https://psychotherapy.psychiatryonline.org/doi/full/10.1176/appi.psychotherapy.2013.67.4.385
- Martin, S. (2017, December 3). Coping with a personal crisis while running a private practice. Retrieved from https://socialworkcoaching.com/coping-with-a-personal-crisis-while-running-a-private-practice
- Norcross, J. C., & Guy, J. D. (2013). Psychotherapist self-care checklist. Psychologists’ Desk Reference. doi: 10.1093/med:psych/9780199845491.003.0144
- Professional health and well-being for psychologists. (n.d.). American Psychological Association. Retrieved from https://www.apaservices.org/practice/ce/self-care/well-being