Avoid Burnout: How to Take Care of Others While Caring for Yourself

by Michael Keeler

One of the most common issues I hear every day as a coach who works with helping professionals is “I give everything I have to my clients all day, then I don’t have anything left for me when I get home.”

When I ask why I’m often told something to the effect of “My clients like to dump all their issues on me. I find myself taking on their feelings of stress or anxiety and it’s [bleeping!] exhausting.”

Does that sound like you?

I certainly know the feeling.

I hear this concern so much among people who help other people for a living, I’ve come to think it is the main cause of burnout for helping professionals. In any job where you develop a close personal relationship with your clients, you run the risk of that client sharing (or over-sharing) every emotional detail of their life — all the high and lows dumped onto your lap.

It’s a double-edged sword. Every helping professional, be it, a personal trainer or nutrition coach or client manager, knows that more connection with your client — more openness and vulnerability — can be extremely valuable. That kind of connection can lead to better results in your work together, more loyalty and trust. 

The other edge of the sword is when a deep connection with your client leads you to feel drained, beaten down, or worse of all, used. This happens most often when we as helping professionals do not have clear emotional boundaries and allow the challenges and emotions of our clients to become our challenges and emotions. 

The fastest way to burnout as a helping professional is to take on the thoughts and feelings of your clients as your own. 

It doesn’t have to be that way. It is truly possible to be available to help others while still leaving some gas in the tank for ourselves at the end of each day. 

The secret is in understanding the difference between empathy and compassion. 

Let’s break them down. 

em·​pa·​thy | noun. \ ˈem-pə-thē \ 

1: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another 

The way we commonly think of empathy is putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes — to know (or at least try to know) what it feels like to be another person. 

Think of it like this. Imagine your client has fallen into a ditch. They are scared, stuck and alone down there. You decide that the best way to help them is to jump into the ditch with them. 

Now, you are in the ditch, also feeling scared and stuck. 

This is the equivalent of empathy. When we take on the challenges and feelings of our clients as if they were our own, we can find ourselves needing the same support we were meant to be providing them. 

Consider how many clients you interact with within a given week? Two or three? A dozen? Several dozen? That’s how many times you could be jumping into a ditch each week. 

Yikes. No wonder you’re feeling burnt out! 

In a worst-case scenario, empathy can lead to codependency. Codependency is created by the expectation that you as the helper will worker harder on your client’s life and problems then they will. 

This isn’t helping you or your client.

Now let’s talk about compassion.

com·​pas·​sion | noun. \ kəm-ˈpa-shən  \

1: sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it

We often talk about compassion as understanding the feelings of others. The key difference here is that compassion is the experience of knowing that someone else is having a negative experience without needing to experience that negative feeling ourselves. 

If empathy sounds like “I share in your anger and frustration”, compassion sounds like “I can see that you are angry and frustrated.”

Back to our ditch analogy. Imagine your client has fallen into a ditch. You can see that they are scared, stuck and alone down there. You decide that the best way to help them is to stay safe aboveground and throw them down a rope they can climb up.

Can you see the benefit of this approach? 

As a helper or caregiver in your life, you need not take on the issues and emotions of your clients to help them. In fact, you can be more helpful if you assist them from a position of stability and safety. 

 

The ideal posture to take when your job is to help others day-in and day-out is something called detached engagement. The idea is simply that you remain personally and emotionally detached from your client’s issues but completely engaged in their experience and the process of helping them through it. 

It sounds like a paradox, but I promise it’s possible. Detachment or non-attachment is a very ancient Buddhist idea, in fact. 

Attachment is the very opposite of love. Love says, “I want you to be happy.” Attachment says, “I want you to make me happy.”

— Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Tenzin Palmo

There are two ways to experience detached engagement — it is both a practice and a mindset. 

Practically speaking, detached engagement starts with creating strong boundaries with your clients (or with anyone in your life, really). Check out my video about how to do that here

To get into the mindset of detached engagement I have a few phrases that can be useful. Use them like a mantra or write these phrases in places where you will see them regularly. 

  • I first help myself to be the most helpful to others. 

  • I show compassion for all and empathy for a few. 

  • I can provide safety and strength to others when I am feeling safe and strong. 

  • I can help others, but I understand that they must be willing to help themselves. 

  • I am committed to helping solve my client’s problems, but I understand they are not my problems. 

When you can consistently experience detached engagement and set clear boundaries with your clients, I can guarantee that you will become more valuable and impactful as a helper.

Not only will you avoid burnout, but you’ll be unstoppable.


 

I’ve been in a helping or teaching profession for nearly 20 years and learning this lesson has increased my resilience by a hundredfold.

What do you think?

How do you avoid burnout as a helping professional (or just a human)?

Let’s chat. Share in the comments below. 

Comments

4 Comments

  1. Chris

    This is the exact project I’ve been working on.
    I feel that compassion fatigue is a very real thing in the fitness space. It starts, as you say, with creating boundaries to protect your emotional and mental health but also allow space for you to care for your client.

    Combine that with making self care strategies a part of your day and you’ll avoid that burnout feeling

    Reply
    • Michael Keeler

      Thanks for the comment, Chris. Your point about daily self-care is so important.

      Reply
  2. Mike Doehla

    Excellent stuff, Michael. At our yearly staff summit this past week we had a few of our team members presenting in this. So important.

    Reply
    • Michael Keeler

      Thanks so much, Mike. Glad to hear that your team is focusing on this for your long-term health. 🙂

      Reply

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