Working in a helping or counselling role is a lot harder than it may seem – especially if you want to do it for a long time while still deriving satisfaction from it. Many people are drawn to the field because they are told they are a good listener, or maybe they’ve had their own relevant struggles and become stronger because of them. Or perhaps they simply like to solve problems.
These can all be useful qualities in a helper role. However, on their own, none of these qualities will ensure a person will be good at this type of job, or that they will be satisfied in it.
We know that helping people can actually have a negative toll on the helper over time. Burnout, compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma, or secondary stress – these are all descriptors for various ways in which helpers show the signs of listening to others’ burdens while feeling the weight of the burden on themselves. Often a helper has very little control over how another person’s situation turns out, or what choices they make. Feelings of futility, helplessness, or disappointment can override the drive to help.
In contrast, it is only over time in a role that one can truly develop compassion satisfaction. This is the deep understanding of resonance with one’s job, and a fit between a person’s core values and what they are doing – and the feeling that these two things are aligned.
The following 5 actions are fundamental to creating the conditions for building compassion satisfaction in a counselling role:
Set an intention to like people.
It seems silly to need to say it, however feelings of affinity really can shift over time. Do you find yourself appreciating people more, or liking them less and less? It is normal to have those days when you don’t want to hear another human being’s voice. However, a deep respect and curiosity for the diversity of people around you opens you up to continually discovering new things about them.
Set an intention to like yourself.
This is not a given for every helper, and sometimes it’s a challenge. Actively caring for ourselves will build our actual care for ourselves. We won’t survive in this job without it. Take good care of yourself, because it’s the only way you can truly care about others without your own needs blurring your vision. If care for ourselves is lacking, we are more likely to look to others to fill this need and make us feel okay.
Gather the right supports around you.
What do you need in your relationships? Explore what a real friend means to you, then ask for it, work for it, and put energy into building it. This also includes professional relationships, such as appropriate, skilled supervision that is attuned to you and matches your role. We all need someone to turn to and lean on when we start to wane on the first two items in this list. If this isn’t a part of your organization, find like-minded colleagues to create your own support team.
Nurture your sense of humour and playfulness.
Playfulness and humour both feel good and relieve stress. Beyond that, play also allows us to be creative, innovative, and more adaptable. We become more empathetic and open to others and ourselves. Play and humour revolve around exploring, flexibility, and surprise. Practicing play regularly balances out the constraints of our roles. We need a chance to risk, to not worry about rules so much, and not be afraid of failing. Play is its own drive – the pleasure of it moves us to keep trying, and provides its own reward. We don’t have to accomplish anything.
Nurture your sense of Spirituality.
Spirituality guides us towards what is most meaningful to us. What gives you the passion to do this work? Explore your own values and stand by them while still respecting the values of others. Consider why you want to be a counsellor. What is your hoped outcome? Can you live with something entirely different happening?
When we are clear about our own values and reasons for doing this job, we can be more patient and flexible when people are making different decisions, or moving in a direction other than what we had hoped for. When the workplace, role, and your own values align, you are more likely to feel a sense of competence, motivation, and passion for what you are doing.
Compassion satisfaction describes the feeling that the work being done is truly valuable. This builds over time and is often felt more deeply when a helper has also felt the contrast of fatigue or vicarious trauma. When a helper has faced the challenges of continuing in this role, it is possible for them to truly identify why they keep going. As a result, the drive to continue becomes more real and tangible.
These 5 actions and qualities stand out for me as I consider what has become increasingly important to ensuring that I truly want to continue to learn and grow in this role.
What is the key quality you have learned that makes you feel satisfied with your role as a helper?
Brown, S. (2009) Play. London: Penguin Books.
Sodeke-Gregson, E., Holttum , S. & Billings, J. (2013). Compassion satisfaction, burnout, and secondary traumatic stress in UK therapists who work with adult trauma clients, in European Journal of Psychotraumatology, 4: 21869 doi.org/10.3402/ejpt.v4i0.21869