Balancing Professional and Personal Lives through Self-Care

Module Sections:

Challenges and Risks: Challenges to New Professionals

Be that as it may, these challenges are always inherent during the practice of therapy. However, professionals new to the field have their own unique set of stressors to contend with on their way to becoming expert practitioners. Skovholt & Ronnestad (2003) identified seven stressors specific to novice counselors and therapists. We are presenting four stressors. We will delve deeper into these stressors later and provide you tools to overcome them.

  • Acute Performance Anxiety and Fear: Beginning therapists of many professions and theoretical orientations from a variety of countries feel overwhelmed early in their careers (Orlinsky & Rønnestad, 2001). They lack the professional confidence that buffers the experience of anxiety when difficulties are encountered. The anxiety of self-consciousness, which leads to focusing on oneself, makes it more difficult to attend to the complex work tasks. Counselor and therapist anxiety impacts the quality of the work because attention cannot be directed toward optimally relating to the client. The individual's attention is directed toward reducing the external visible effects (e.g., trembling and wet hands, unsteady voice) and lowering the internal anxiety so one can think effectively. One novice in our research study said, "At times I was so busy thinking about the instructions given in class and textbooks, I barely heard the client" (Skovholt & Rønnestad, 1995, p. 27). In addition to pervasive performance anxiety, the novice may experience specific fears such as being speechless, with no idea what to say in reaction to a specific client's concern. Together, anxiety and fear about the unknown are like a one-two punch and can seriously heighten the stress level for the novice.
  • Porous or Rigid Emotional Boundaries: Although the novice is often helped in training and supervision to develop clarity regarding appropriate physical boundaries (i.e., to touch or not to touch), issues of boundaries can also be understood in a broader sense. How counselors and therapists regulate their emotions when relating to a client is a core challenge. To function optimally, counselors and therapists need the ability to experience, understand, regulate, and express emotions at a level that facilitates the counseling/therapy process. When encountering challenges and emotional or cognitive overload, the practitioner naturally attempts to process the intense data. There seems to be three styles of reacting to the intense data: premature closure, insufficient closure, and functional closure (Rønnestad, 1996). It is difficult for the beginning counselor/therapist to regulate and express emotions. To do this strategically means that the counselor/ therapist is able to do the Cycle of Caring: empathic attachment, then active involvement, then felt separation over and over again in an optimal way with client after client (Skovholt, 2001). This is an advanced set of skills and very demanding for the beginner.
  • The Fragile and Incomplete Practitionerself: In our research, we found that, at the affect level, the beginning counselor or therapist who is not yet familiar with the new professional role, feels both enthusiasm and insecurity (Skovholt & Rønnestad, 1995). Creating a practitionerself, a term similar to that of Ellwein, Grace, and Comfort (1990), involves vigorous internal construction work, as well as the external effort of trying on new clothes and new ways of being in the world. Like an adolescent, the fragile and incomplete practitionerself shifts through a series of moods: enthusiasm, insecurity, elation, fear, relief, frustration, delight, despair, pride, and shame. The novice self is fragile and, therefore, highly reactive to negative feedback. Metaphorically expressed, there is not much muscle, and the immunology system is stressed.
  • Glamorized Expectation: Without full awareness, the novice often is more hopeful about the impact of his or her efforts than is warranted. This over optimism coexists with apprehension about one's skill level, and they connect in the goal of magnificent change. If the work is impactful, the novice will likely feel like a successful practitioner. The novice may reason: If I am able enough, skilled enough, warm enough, intelligent enough, powerful enough, knowledgeable enough, caring enough, present enough—then the other will improve. In time, the novice develops much clearer, more realistic, more precise, and less glamorous expectations. No longer is one able to cure the other quickly and easily. Rather, human change is seen as a complex, often slow process in which the practitioner plays only a part. This realism helps to reduce practitioner stress. But it takes time to get to a place where "realistic" replaces "idealistic." Only later will the novice really comprehend how many factors, such as readiness by the other, as extensively studied by Prochaska (1999), play such an important role in client success and that the client often accounts for much of the variance in counseling/therapy outcome (Lambert, 1989).

It is our hope that the description of novice struggles here will help ease the difficult novice voyage. After all, a productive and meaningful career in counseling and therapy can be just ahead.

Some or all of these stressors may act together and prevent self-care activities from occurring in helping professionals, thereby leading to burnout, compassion fatigue, and other similar impairments.