Episode 108: Burnout Prevention: You're So Much More Than Your Professional Identity [featuring Sarah Gilbert]
Therapists, when someone asks you about yourself, how often do you start with "I'm a mental health therapist," without actually being able to talk about the other things that make up your identity? It could be that you can't think of other roles in your life, interests, hobbies, etc.
As helpers, we so often default to "what we do for work" to describe who we are. This can be problematic, especially when we don't take care of other parts of ourselves. It leads to burnout, stress, compassion fatigue, and more.
In this episode, I talk with Sarah Gilbert, therapist and coach, about the common tendency among mental health professionals to define themselves solely by their work and how this can lead to burnout and a loss of personal identity.
3 Key Takeaways...
- Reflect on your journey: It's important to explore why you entered this field and how your identity as a helper developed. Understanding this can provide insight into how your work may be influencing your overall sense of self.
- Boundaries are crucial: Building boundaries is an essential component of self-care and preventing burnout. We must recognize that we can't be "therapists" or "healers" 24/7. It's okay to prioritize other aspects of our lives and set limits to protect our mental and emotional well-being.
- Challenge societal expectations: Society often expects mental health professionals to sacrifice their personal lives for the sake of their clients. However, we have the power to redefine success in our field. Let go of guilt and shame when prioritizing self-care and setting professional goals that align with your needs and values.
More about Sarah:
Sarah Gilbert is a coach and therapist in private practice in Connecticut. She is also a mom, a wife, an avid reader, a snarky friend, and a Ted Lasso fan. Her passion is helping humans peel away the labels and expectations that others put on them, and get connected to their unique, multifaceted identities.
Sarah's Website: sarahgilbertcoaching.com
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PATRICK CASALE: Hey, everyone, you are listening to another episode of the All Things Private Practice Podcast. I'm your host, Patrick Casale, joined today by a good friend and colleague of mine, Sara Gilbert, who's an LCSW up in Connecticut, private practice owner, a coach, strong and fierce advocate for the LGBTQ community, and just a really fun person to spend time with. So, really glad to have you on here, and talk about identity and how that can also lead to burnout in this profession.
SARAH GILBERT: Awesome. Yeah, thank you so much for having me. I'm excited to be here and talk about this. I'm really passionate about, in my coaching, helping, specifically, mental health professionals, healers, helpers, look at what role our work plays in our overall identity. Because I think that's something that a lot of us are coming to reckoning with, especially, [INDISCERNIBLE 00:01:48] few years of the pandemic and switching to telehealth, and everything being really heavy and unpredictable.
PATRICK CASALE: Yeah, for sure. And I think that, you know, so often in society, not just in this profession, but as a whole, when you ask someone about themselves, the first thing they lead off with is I'm a X, I'm a blank, I'm a therapist, I'm a doctor, I'm a lawyer, I, whatever, I'm a bartender. And we so often like have our professional identity intertwined with our personal identity as if that's the only thing that defines us. And I think there are certain characteristics and traits that lead to people becoming helping professionals, whether it's in the mental health world, or any helping capacity. So, do you want to talk a little bit about kind of some of the stuff that you see on your end and the work that you do?
SARAH GILBERT: Yeah, absolutely. So, the way I think of, you know, myself and colleagues in this field is that a lot of us entered into this field because this is what we're good at, right? Just kind of listening to people, holding space, validating, being able to maybe manage conflict, all of these natural tendencies we have.
And so, you know, in the last year, I've been really reflecting on my own process of like, how did I even get into this work? And I think that this is a common theme, as I've talked with other people about that. Our personalities kind of make us right for being good at this work, but also having it consume our entire identities. Like you were mentioning, for the longest time, I would introduce myself to people, you know, if there's a professional networking event, I'd say, "Hi, I'm Sarah Gilbert, and I'm a therapist or LCSW." That would be it.
Whereas now, as I've been through the process of trying to walk back from that, from having my own therapist identity consume the entirety of how I saw myself, I very intentional will introduce myself as like, "Hi, I'm Sarah, I am a wife, I'm a mom, I'm a therapist, I'm a coach, I'm a queen fanatic, I'm a huge [INDISCERNIBLE 00:03:51] fan, I'm a book nerd." Right? Because they are all these different facets of my identity that are also important.
And I think why I'm so passionate about supporting healers and helpers and coaching is that we can lose ourselves in our work very easily without even realizing it. And I think, you know, some of the other examples you mentioned was like, you know, a doctor or a bartender, I think what's a little bit different in the mental health field is that our work is so tied to the emotional connections with people, the emotional labor, the difficult stuff we hear people share that when we try to kind of pull back from being a therapist all the times to all people, it almost feels guilty or shameful, right? Like, it's almost like a moral offense. Like, we're being bad people because we're trying to set some boundaries.
So, that's why I think it's a little different and a little more problematic for us in the mental health field if we're not aware of that and if we're not checking that out because that definitely leads to burnout when all we see ourselves is what we can do for other people.
PATRICK CASALE: Yeah, absolutely. I think that there's a myriad of reasons why people become helpers in the first place. And a lot of it is because of your own, you know, childhood wounding or your own experiences throughout life that have led to a lot of painfulness and maybe you exhibited some empathic qualities or intuitive qualities, and you were really keen to other people's needs, and you started to shape your identity as being able to help other people. And that created a lot of value and sense of self-worth.
And then as you go throughout your career, if you're quantifying your self-worth and defining your self-worth as your ability to show up for other people, you really do lose a lot of your sense of self in that. And you know, we know that the field is experiencing an immense and extraordinary amount of burnout right now because of COVID, because of the last couple of years, because of just society being a shit show, for the most part in general. Like, it's a hard job. And we're seeing a lot of people leave the profession to become coaches, consultants. I've had people tell me, "I don't want to do this work anymore, I'm going to go back to working at Old Navy. Like, I just can't do this."
And I think a lot of the time like, it's boundary stuff, it's having the lack of self-care. And self-care is a term we throw around so loosely in our profession, but it doesn't have to mean like, toes up on the beach, it just means like, you have to have some fucking boundaries because this work is impossible to do in a stance of longevity and for the duration of an entire age of a career, that's not the word I want to use, but you know what I'm trying to say, if you do not create separation, and you can't step away, and remove the like, helper, healer role from who you are.
And I hear people say, "But that's just innately who I am." And it's like, well, that's fine, but you also can't be that 24/7.
SARAH GILBERT: Yeah, yeah, absolutely, yeah. What started my own exploration of this and what's kind of put me in the direction of coaching, specifically, to help fellow healers is a conversation with a really good friend of mine last year. And we were both reflecting on our experiences in MSW programs. And, you know, as we were talking, my friend reflected something that made me think like, yeah, why did I even go to grad school, like, I didn't even consciously engage in that process. It was about, you know, like, you were saying, like, within my family system, I was always the referee, trying to mitigate conflict and tension. And it just kind of seemed like, well, that's what I'm supposed to do because that's what I'm good at.
I can look back now and say, I didn't consciously fully think through what I was doing. And that's not to say that I regret it. But I think I can see so clearly how it has impacted me to not kind of introspect and think about like, why am I doing this work? What role do I want it to have in my life versus the role, is it actually consuming in my life? And I think a lot of us are stuck in that trap, and then from there it's like a lot of shame and guilt that we're feeling like we don't want to do this work anymore, a lot of shame and guilt, not only internally, but what I've seen play out all the time in Facebook groups, except for yours, is shaming. Yeah, true shaming other colleagues, we're getting it from other colleagues. You know, if one of us dares to say, you know, I want to build a practice where I have eight weeks off a year, or I want to charge $200 an hour.
So, I think what I've been awakening to and when I'm passionate and supporting other people with just kind of realizing how we can do so much better and we can be sustainable in this field if we are taking a step back to look at, why am I doing this work? And how do I filter out the noise of other people's expectations or other people's judgments? Whether that's, you know, colleagues, family members, friends, it seems to kind of come from all around.
PATRICK CASALE: Yeah, it's definitely we get it from all angles, you know, because there's the narrative, right? When you're telling people who are not in this field and people who are, "I'm going to go into the field of mental health, I'm going to become a therapist." And the immediate reaction is most likely, like, "Oh, that's really noble, but you're not going to make any money." And that's like the standard response for most people, that's the narrative you get in grad school, that's the narrative you get in community mental health. It's all about self-sacrifice, it's all about putting everybody else first, it's almost that bleeding heart syndrome.
And we know where this is based. Like, the helping profession is fundamentally founded in Christianity and religion. And that's how it kind of expanded into, you know, helping, and self-sacrificing, and putting everyone else's needs first. And then you get into the helping profession, you create your own business, you start to notice like, "Hey, I don't really like this. Hey, this doesn't work for me. I'm starting to become more comfortable with who I am. I'm going to express like my goals publicly." And then you get a range of responses of like, "You're being really greedy, you're feeding into capitalism."
SARAH GILBERT: Unethical, yeah.
PATRICK CASALE: [CROSSTALK 00:10:10] or you're doing things like way outside the box that, you know, shouldn't be done in your practice. So, it really is a profession where we like to self-sabotage. But we also like to tear people down because I think, and this is my own thought process, this is my own theory based on the last three years of coaching therapists from all over the country because I see similar themes play out over and over and over again, is it seems like there are two separate sets of therapists, those who are in the profession to heal themselves through the work that they do, who have not yet done enough work of their own to be able to feel confident, and autonomous. Then there are the ones who have done the work, doesn't mean they didn't get into the field to heal themselves through the work that they've done, but they've realized, like, that's not healthy, I need to be able to show up, but I also need to be able to separate. I'm okay with making money, I'm okay with having different ventures, I'm okay with holding boundaries, I'm okay with going on vacation. The other separate group will say, "How can you go on vacation your clients need you?"
SARAH GILBERT: Yes.
PATRICK CASALE: Are you that one? That's very unhealthy codependent thinking. I've always believed in this profession that I am from day one working myself out of a job. And my goal is for my clients to be as autonomous and independent as possible.
SARAH GILBERT: Yeah, yeah.
PATRICK CASALE: I no longer… Go ahead, sorry.
SARAH GILBERT: No, it's because I totally agree with you. Yeah, go ahead.
PATRICK CASALE: I am no longer practicing as a clinician. Like, as of 2022, I don't have any clients on my caseload anymore. So, there was a lot of, you mentioned shamefulness that came up around identity. When I was thinking, I'm going to retire as a mental health therapist and really focus on being the leader and owner of my group practice, and my coaching business, and my podcast and all the other things that I'm doing, I just don't have time to do 60-minute increments of time with clients one on one anymore. And that was building for a year or two as All Things Private Practice was really growing in reputation and all the offers were coming in. And it was like becoming very obvious, like I can no longer split attention and focus because my clients deserve more than that.
And there was a lot of shamefulness of like, leaving the profession, and no longer identifying as a clinician. And I had lunch with a mentor one day from graduate school, and she was like, "I think you're just helping the profession in a different way. And I think that's really the way you need to reframe this."
And that, for me was very helpful because otherwise, I was over-identifying as someone who was like, really hacking it in or abandoning the profession. And that didn't feel good. But if all of my identity is wrapped up in being a licensed clinical mental health clinician, it makes sense why the emotions would be so volatile in that regard. So, really being able to parse that apart and saying, like, no, I'm a coach. I'm a consultant. I'm a speaker, I'm a retreat host, I'm a podcast host, I'm a group practice owner. But more importantly, like, I like playing soccer. I like watching these TV shows. Like, I have a wonderful partner and two crazy dogs. Like, there are so many parts of life that don't get talked about because capitalism, grind culture, and like the pressure that society places upon us to be successful.
SARAH GILBERT: Yeah, absolutely. I talk with, it's interesting part of my process has been almost a parallel process with quite a few of my clients over the last couple of years of really reexamining what does productivity mean? Because that is such a societal cultural push of like, be productive, push harder.
You know, if I look at any influencer or anybody online who's using the words, like crush it, grind, like, that's a hard no for me. I am not interested in that life because I did that for so long. And it really led me to massive burnout. Last year, emotionally, mentally, was one of the most challenging years for me because I hadn't done this work yet, of really looking at why did I pursue this career? What does it mean, even within my family, right?
Like you mentioned, we got into this field to heal our stuff, right? I came from a pretty dysfunctional family system. And within that system, I had one parent who was really pushing like, "You're the one, you've got to go to college, you've got to get a master's." And then, you know, shortly after I got my master's, my dad was like, "Great, when you are you getting your PhD?" Which I know he meant well, and he had dreams for me, but also I'm sitting with the awareness now that that was really unhealthy for me to absorb, that pressure, right?
And so when I got to a point of massive burnout last year, I was thinking like, I don't ever want to do therapy again. Like, I want to go work at Starbucks." I had to really reckon with, well, I didn't do that work. I had to turn to really look both within my family system and just look at my personality type, why I got into this field, and what boundaries I could have put in place so that my healing work was part of what I do but I was also other things to other people, right? So, that's why, you know, now what I want to do in coaching is help other people who have just kind of lost sense of what other things are important or joyful or meaningful to them because it just so easily can happen without your awareness.
PATRICK CASALE: Yeah, absolutely. That's well said. And I think once it happens, it's really hard to walk it back because it's a place of burnout, or frustration, resentment, irritability, where it's like, what can I really do to circle back and rectify some of the things that I overlooked or didn't take care of? Because it's really challenging, it's easy to say like, oh, just like, take some time off, or step away, or do all the things. But in reality, it's like, yeah, but those feelings are still going to be there when I come back to this. So, you really have to do the work, you have to do the depth-oriented work too in your own process of healing. And I think that's really crucial. And we miss the mark a lot of that in our profession. I can't tell you how many times I've talked to therapists who are like, "I don't really believe in going to therapy." I'm like, "What the fuck?" But-
SARAH GILBERT: I don't understand that much.
PATRICK CASALE: [CROSSTALK 00:18:40]. You know, one thing that comes to mind, and I want to ask you if you have any, like, tangible action steps that people can put into place as they're listening to this if they're identifying with what we're talking about. And I think about a scene and I know you're going to know what I'm talking about in Ted Lasso where like, Roy is getting benched and Keeley is, "Phoebe, tell me about your uncle Roy." And she's like, "I think he's nice. He likes ice cream. He swears a lot." And she never mentions like, "Oh, he's a footballer." Right? And Keeley is like, "Oh, that's not the only part of my identity even though for so long that has been. "
So, it really is about trying to step back and like, piece apart like where are the areas that you identify and it cannot just be professionally. But, action steps or just advice that you could offer people who are listening about how to start this process?
SARAH GILBERT: Yeah, I love that you brought in, I'm all about pop culture references and tying that into the work we do as therapists and healers. So, that's a beautiful example of that.
So, one thing that comes to mind right away is I would encourage people to think back on what did you used to get really excited about or loved doing when you were a kid or a teenager, right? Like, before kind of being a helper really consumed a big part of your identity, what did you use to just love to do or lose time doing?
So, for me, personally, that's been art. You know, once upon a time I actually got into an art school. I was supposed to go to school for fashion design, that was my original plan. So, reconnecting to art in a way that is just kind of fun and there's no agenda has been super important and healing for me. Like, I did the background of my office space, I've been doing toe painting, getting back into sewing more, all the sort of creative outlets because there's no agenda, I'm not doing it for anybody else, I'm just doing it for the enjoyment of it. And so I would really encourage folks to think about even one or two small things. Like, what did you used to love to do that wasn't because someone else expected you to do it?
PATRICK CASALE: Yeah, I like that a lot. I have some of your art in my office. Actually, I have some of the pink [INDISCERNIBLE 00:20:56] you sent me and some Gollum thing that you stitched me? And, yeah, so really cool.
What about… Because I know this comes up for me immediately. It's like, what if I didn't like to do anything when I was a kid or a teenager? What if my adolescence sucked?
SARAH GILBERT: Yeah, I would look at trying to learn something new which I know sounds kind of weird. But the novelty of learning something, a new skill, a new craft, just to see, you know, I tell my clients too, a lot of times, like, "This may totally suck, let's just allow for the possibility that this is a garbage idea. We're just going to do an experiment."
So, something that might be remotely interesting to learn, something new, that, you know, it doesn't have a huge investment of time or money. That would be kind of where I would start. So, you know, maybe it's some particular crap you saw on Tiktok, or YouTube, anywhere, you know, finding inspiration with anything like that.
PATRICK CASALE: Yeah, and I think you can probably take like an elective at a community college, or you could join some groups around town, or anything that feels like remotely interesting just to give it a shot, just to jumpstart that creativity, and really help use a different part of your brain. Because so often we're just like so in our heads about like, "Okay, this is what I do. I do 60-minute increments of therapy sessions. And that's all my interests are, that's where all my energy goes." And then end of the day, your brain is no longer functional. And you're like, "Fuck, I don't even know [CROSSTALK 00:22:29]."
And we really have to have that outlet. Like, soccer has always been that for me. I think that's a challenge. As you get older, your body starts deciding, like you can't do what you used to be able to do. So, now it's like, all right, I need to find new interests, right? Like, you need to figure out other ways where this energy can come out, where you can feel like, you can have this passion that you look forward to every week.
So, I really do encourage all of you to start thinking about this because for those of you who are just getting into the profession, or you know, just starting a practice, or you're in practice, and you're like, "I'm just not feeling satisfied." Now is the time to be proactive, not a year on the road, where you get to the point where you're leaving the profession to go work at Starbucks or go back to bartending, or whatever the case may be because there are preventative measures that we can put into place to create longevity in a career. But it really does take intentionality and it does take boundary setting, and it does take really getting reflective and introspective about who you are and what you like to do.
SARAH GILBERT: Yeah, absolutely. And then I would say the other thing, too, that, you know, for an entirely different reason I recommend to my therapy clients a lot is find some semblance of community, right? If you have one or two colleagues that you know you can really trust to be open with and be like, "I fucking hate being a therapist right now, this sucks. I had a really heavy day, a lot of people putting their stuff on me." That is vital and crucial, too. Like. I can think of two close friends off the top of my head who are also in this field who I know that I can express that and not be encountered with judgment or shaming.
So, I think that that right at the outset is really important, and be very intentional and discerning of who that person is for you or those people because you know, you just want to be able to really be honest when things are great and when things fucking suck. That also really important.
PATRICK CASALE: Yeah, absolutely. I think that's crucial. I think having good support in your lives, professionally and personally, and just having… it can be one or two people that just, I mean, you know because this is a profession where so often people don't get it. And you're not allowed to really talk about what you did at work today. So, it's very easy to default until your partner or friend says like, "How was your day?" And you're like, "It was fine. It was exhausting. I talked to six different people about their issues for 60 minutes' chunks of time." And people are like, "Yeah, but you just sat there and listened?" Well, it's a hell of a lot more than that and more absorbing, and attuned, and focusing on body language, and head movement, and eye movement, and tone of voice change, and all the things that we're tracking as healers.
So, I really want to challenge all of you to think about this stuff and to really try to start incorporating it because I think it will make your professional journey a lot more creative, a lot more enjoyable, and a lot more long-lasting.
So, Sarah, I just want to thank you for coming on, and sharing some of this, and really showing up in an authentic way. Sarah was very nervous before we started recording today. We're good friends. So, hope today it didn't feel-
SARAH GILBERT: Thanks for it putting that out there, thanks. That's a very cool. I appreciate.
PATRICK CASALE: I think it's a good acknowledgement of the fact that a lot of you listening like want to go on podcasts, you want to speak at events, you want to do these things. It's normal to feel nervous beforehand, and then kind of drop in. And that's important to acknowledge too.
Share with the audience a little bit about some of your new stuff that you've got going on because I know you've started a new coaching business, and all the things that you have coming up.
SARAH GILBERT: Yeah, so I'm really excited to be coaching individual and group coaching experiences. sarahgilbertcoaching.com is where you can find out information about that. I'm developing a group experience for other healers and helpers who are kind of in this place of, "I think I'm getting burnt out. I don't know if I want to leave the field, but I am definitely feeling really crunchy about this work." And I want to have a safe space to really talk about that." So, that's something I'm working on a lot. It's going to be a six or eight-week group experience, but that's in the works.
And you can follow me on Instagram also for content @sarah_gilbert_coaching on Instagram. I make fun reels, and posts kind of relating to I think the unique experiences that we have as healers and helpers. So, my hope is that people feel seen by what I put out there and know that this is something that you deserve to take time to heal and get some connection and community around.
PATRICK CASALE: And all of that information will be in the show notes for everyone to have easy access to. So, check that out, really good stuff. And thanks for coming on. And because this episode is not going to air for a while, I can excitedly announce too that Sarah is going to be one of the breakout speakers in the 24 Italy Doubt Yourself, Do It Anyway summit that Jennifer Agee and I are co-hosting in a medieval Italian village and beautiful Petritoli. So, cannot wait for that. And again, by the time this comes out, this will already be public knowledge. So, really excited for that as well. And you can check that out on my website, allthingspractice.com. You can join my Facebook group, Empowered Escape for Entrepreneurial Therapists. And for all of you listening to the All Things Private Practice Podcast, new episodes are out on all major podcast platforms. Like, download, subscribe, and share. Doubt yourself, do it anyway. See you next week.
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