A Story of Therapist Burnout

Stara Shakti, MA, MFT Intern

A Story of Therapist Burnout
by Stara Shakti, MA, MFT Intern

Dear LA-CAMFT colleagues:

I never thought it would happen to me. I had learned the lesson of self-care in grad school at Antioch University in the Psychological Trauma Studies specialization. I loved working with trauma, especially witnessing my clients’ healing, resiliency, and post-traumatic growth (PTG) — that’s right, positive life changes that can come from trauma. But there was another side of working with trauma I learned about in my program: burnout (emotional exhaustion also found in other professions), vicarious traumatization (cognitive changes within the therapist from being exposed to others’ traumatic material), and secondary post-traumatic stress (STS), known also as indirect trauma exposure or compassion (or empathy) fatigue. Emotional residue from hearing the first-hand trauma experiences of others, can result in symptoms that closely mimic those of PTSD — and even a gradual lessening of compassion over time. Therapists who are female or highly empathic or who have had past trauma are at higher risk. Even knowing all this, taking classes on self-care, and reading books like Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others, all it took for me was to start seeing clients in my traineeship, get a part-time work-study job, and take advanced trauma classes on human trafficking to feel burned out after grad school. So, I took a few months off to rest and heal while I waited for my intern number to come in, then I happily started out in private practice.

By this time, I thought I was a queen of self-care; I had it down, knew how to prevent it in the future, and always told my peers to practice self-care too. But what I hadn’t accounted for was my professional and personal worlds colliding; when this happens, your own issues can get triggered, and it feels like trauma is everywhere you turn. It can feel overwhelming and engulfing. That’s what happened to me this summer. After a few months in private practice, I joined a community mental health agency to pick up extra hours. It was fine for two months: my hours were going up, I hosted my first Westside Therapists happy hour event (a big success), got invited back to do a second presentation (on intersectionality and identity in queer people of color at LAGPA’s annual conference), and started volunteering for LA-CAMFT. Once I had found my therapist community, I was eager to help on committees, i.e. special events, diversity, and a few others. At the time, I felt I had enough time, energy, and passion to commit to being an active part of the volunteer community.

That’s when . . . things started falling apart. First one crisis, then another, then a whole summer of them, both with clients and with people close to me. There were several hospitalizations, including my first client to check himself into a local psychiatric hospital for SI (and stay for a 14-day hold). While I cared deeply about my client and wanted to be there for him, I also felt scared and not properly trained to handle the situation. To make matters worse, I didn’t have a supportive supervisor, who was not happy with me when I fell behind in my notes . . . and couldn’t seem to catch up. It went from bad to worse and eventually, I felt like I was drowning and my agency job was consuming my life. Along the way, my own health began to suffer: I have fibromyalgia, which got worse, meaning my usually chronic pain became acute, parts of my body got inflamed (i.e. fingers, hands, wrists, forearms, neck, and shoulders from typing up all my notes), my migraines increased, I had trouble focusing or concentrating on what I was doing, and other physical, mental, and emotional health problems.

Eventually, I knew it was a losing battle . . . so I quit. It was not an easy decision, but I feel the right one. Though this summer was heart-wrenching, I emerged with some valuable insights, including the age-old one, “know thyself”: agency work is not for me (more of a private practice gal myself); I can still easily burn out; and it can slowly creep up on me and happen at any time. As such, I will once again be engaging in a process of deep healing, rest, and renewal in my body, mind, and spirit. That is, while I am studying for Law & Ethics, prepping for my upcoming LAGPA presentation, and of course, continuing to build up my private practice (while re-connecting with family and friends and re-gaining a balance in my life. As good as I am (or thought I was) at it, my quest to understand and practice balanced, sustainable self-care while doing trauma-informed therapy work continues.

Tara (“Stara”) Shakti, M.A., is a Marriage and Family Therapist Intern, #97431. She received an M.A. in Clinical Psychology from Antioch University. She sees individuals and couples in private practice in Westwood, supervised by Dr. Lani Chin, and is accepting new clients. Stara may be contacted at 310.694.2396 or StaraShaktiMFTI@gmail.com.