When mental health professionals compare their problems to that of their clients, they risk falling into the trappings of comparative suffering and missing the signs of secondary trauma and burnout.
Do you struggle with comparative suffering?
When I first started at a non-profit counseling center, I was young and eager to make a difference. But I wasn't naive. I knew there were hazards unique to the job of sitting with clients in their darkest hour, especially in agencies with limited resources. I vowed not to burn out before I turned 30 and I was successful.
I saw different therapists on and off and was coping fairly well with self-care strategies and supportive connections. But after becoming a mother for the second time, I began to feel isolated and overwhelmed. I wasn’t prepared for how my son would react to becoming a big brother and having to share me. My daughter was a terrible napper, and my son became aggressive towards her and me—at times hitting or spitting. I was exhausted. Instead of being gentle and understanding as I was with my clients, it felt like motherhood was bringing out the worst in me. I would get activated so quickly by my son and found myself yelling and rushing to my daughter’s defense.
I didn’t realize until later that he was struggling with ADHD and sensory processing issues and our challenges were reawakening unhealed childhood experiences. I felt like I was failing them both—failing to provide the safety and attention my daughter deserved and the co-regulation and support my son needed.
The Problem with Comparative Suffering
The trap of comparative suffering made it hard for me to hold space for my own pain in comparison to my clients. Lacie Parker, Psy D writes, "Comparative suffering is when we view our painful experiences in terms of what other people are going through in order to determine the level of validity our suffering warrants." Those of us who are highly sensitive are more vulnerable to minimizing or invalidating our experiences of pain in comparison to others. This is likely because we didn’t receive emotional validation growing up, as was the case for many of my highly sensitive clients, friends, and myself.
My childhood wounds were nothing in comparison to the horrific childhoods many of my clients experienced, or so I convinced myself. What right did I have to "complain" about my losses or boundary violations when my clients suffered physical and sexual abuse?
Sometimes the invalidation or minimization comes from others in the field. When I dared to admit to a supervisor about how hard I was finding parenting, she brushed it off as stress instead of encouraging me to reach out for support. When I tried to encourage stricter boundaries about the trauma cases we treated, I was reminded, 'We don’t turn people away.' Further, it was easy to convince myself to avoid taking time off, saying things like: “My clients need me more."
A Case for Burnout
Things slowly improved with support for my son and adding more tools to my coping toolbox, including daily walks, mindfulness and self-compassion practices. I was promoted to supervising students and then to staff while creating new programs. But, in the wake of the second wave of the #MeToo movement when I couldn’t escape the details of sexual violations in my counselling sessions, committee meetings, case examples from readings and trainings and in my social media feed, it all started feeling like too much. As more and more of my caseload became sexual abuse survivors, graphic images interrupted my sleep and waking hours. Increasingly I felt hypervigilant and worried about mine and my family’s safety. My chest felt tight and memories of not feeling safe were getting activated.
The contrast between my interns’ hopeful nature about the impact they had on their clients contrasted sharply with my growing sense of despair and defeat. I couldn’t see the difference I was making to prevent the overall problem. I knew I couldn't continue. No matter how capable and organized I appeared, I was not okay. My pain mattered too. Minimizing it was helping no one.
It is a deep honor to be entrusted with our clients' vulnerability and care. But we are more than therapists. We have our own experiences of past and present pain, some of which we may not be aware of until we get triggered. Other times there’s another layer of healing needed, despite previous therapy. As best-selling co-authors of Burnout Amelia and Emily Nagoski write, "The cure for burnout is not self-care. It is all of us caring for each other."
With a trembling voice and sweaty palms, I mustered the courage to speak about my compassion fatigue to my boss and ask for the changes I knew I needed: a temporary break from sexual abuse cases and reduced hours to allow for my own healing. Thankfully she agreed and did not judge me.
Reclaiming the gifts of my sensitivity, while learning ways to clear and protect my energy gave me a renewed sense of hope. Embodying my anger at personal and collective pain and turning to creative writing and social advocacy helped me feel like I was making a difference again. I wrote my first online article about my secondary trauma experience and joined Women’s Marches and fundraising initiatives for local gender-based violence and anti-racism organizations.
Then 2020 hit me hard: first a fall on my back on New Year’s Day followed by the fallout of the pandemic. I became exhausted physically and emotionally feeling torn between work and parenting. I did my best to tend to my self-care, insulate my students and advocate for myself. But hearing phrases like, "Everyone's cases have become more complex and we're all taking on more new clients" left me once again feeling ashamed. All the while, my intake team assigned me new cases at a higher rate than others. Others were overwhelmed, on the verge of burnout, and left. I knew I was burning out again too, and it would keep happening, not just because of the conditions but because I wasn’t doing work that was fully aligned with my soul’s calling.
So, after nearly 20 years at a non-profit organization trying to support everyone, I left to create a practice where I could honor my limits and focus on the issues I am most passionate about.
Providing walking sessions throughout my day helps my physical recovery and sensitive nervous system. I love the added benefits movement and nature provide for my clients. Focusing on supporting mothers at all stages helps me honor my passion for prevention. Shifting away from trauma processing work to providing trauma-informed workshops as a Certified Compassion Fatigue Professional allows me to draw on my experience while honoring my needs.
Today as a sensitive helping professional, I work in collaboration with an intuitive coach and fellow highly sensitive person on a special virtual program “Caring without Carrying it All,” which will be launching this fall.
Telling My Story
In her Sept/Oct 2021 Networker Article, "When Therapists Struggle with Their Own Suicidality," Stacey Freedenthal wrote, "Telling my story is an act of defiance against stigma." By sharing my story, I too want to break the stigma and inspire change. Next time you find yourself struggling or have a student, colleague, supervisee, or supervisor confide in you, instead of minimizing or normalizing, hold space for this pain. Remember the courage you celebrate in your clients for admitting their limits and how you see strength in their seeking support. Extend that same kindness to yourself and other professionals rather than missing the warning signs of secondary trauma.
If you are in a leadership, don't wait to talk about the dangers of comparative suffering. Model healthy work/life boundaries and make a regular habit of checking in on your students and staff, even the seasoned ones.
Everyone's capacity and lived experiences vary. Let's release unfair expectations and challenge the lie that struggling is a sign of weakness or incompetence. Instead let’s make sure all mental health professionals breathe in this truth: Your pain matters too. And maybe, like me, your pain is leading you to your purpose.
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