Highly Sensitive Clinicians: Managing Deep Emotions to Improve the Therapeutic Process
By Shannon Heers
As a clinician in the counseling field, it can be a challenging task to manage your own emotions while helping your clients navigate theirs. This is especially true for highly sensitive clinicians/therapists (HST), who tend to be deeply affected by the emotions of those people around them. If you are a highly sensitive therapist, then this blog is for you.
What Does High Sensitivity Mean for Therapists?
High sensitivity is a personality trait characterized by a heightened awareness of stimuli and greater depth of emotional processing. And while this trait can be a strength for you as a therapist in many ways, it can also be a source of stress and burnout.
If you are new to the counseling field or have not yet developed the tools to manage your emotions effectively as a therapist, then it is important for you to learn more about how high sensitivity affects you.
The Importance of Managing Emotional Overwhelm as a Highly Sensitive Therapist
As you know, the therapeutic process is a delicate dance between you and your clients. You must be able to maintain a level of emotional regulation, while also being open and empathetic to your client’s feelings.
In this case, if you are not able to manage your own deep emotions while in session, you may risk becoming overly involved in your client’s struggles, even causing yourself to be overwhelmed. Feeling emotional overwhelm can lead to burnout, decreased effectiveness in therapy, and potentially harm to the therapeutic relationship.
Understand and Recognize Your Own Sensitivity
The first step in managing your emotions as a highly sensitive therapist is to understand and recognize your own sensitivity. This means being aware of your emotional triggers and the impact that these triggers have on your emotions.
Understanding this can help you develop coping strategies to manage your emotions and thus prevent burnout. For example, if you are particularly affected by stories of trauma, you may need to take steps to protect yourself from becoming too involved in your client’s story and losing objectivity. These steps can include things like taking regular breaks during therapy sessions, seeking clinical supervision or consultation, or seeing fewer clients per day.
The Role of a Support System for Highly Sensitive Therapists
In addition to self-awareness, it is important for highly sensitive clinicians to have a solid support system. You may have colleagues or supervisors, or both, who can provide guidance and support when needed. Having friends and family who can provide emotional support outside of work is also important to give your mind a break from therapy.
It is also important, perhaps even more so for highly sensitive therapists, to engage in self-care. Self-care can look like exercise, mindfulness practices, and time for fun activities. This will help you to maintain your emotional balance and prevent burnout.
Mindfulness Practice for Highly Sensitive Clinicians
One way to manage your deep emotions and maintain emotional regulation as a highly sensitive clinician is to practice mindfulness regularly. Mindfulness involves being present in the moment, focusing on your thoughts and feelings, without judgment.
Mindfulness can help you stay grounded and centered, while reducing the impact of emotional triggers that may come up in your therapy sessions. Mindfulness can be practiced through formal meditation as well as in daily activities such as walking or cooking, or however else you choose to be 100% present in the moment throughout your day.
Self-Reflection as a Tool to Manage Deep Emotions
Another way to manage your deep emotions while maintaining emotional regulation is to engage in self-reflection. Self-reflection involves examining your own thoughts and feelings, and considering how they may impact your therapeutic work.
Self-reflection can be done through journaling, supervision, or individual therapy, among other ways. Self-reflection can help you gain insight into your emotional triggers while developing strategies to manage them.
A Strong Therapeutic Framework Supports Emotional Regulation
Finally, it is important for highly sensitive therapists to have a strong therapeutic framework to guide your practice. This may be understanding human development, attachment theory, and the role of emotions in the therapeutic process.
Having a solid theoretical foundation can help you maintain emotional regulation, as well as provide a structure for your work with your clients. Knowing what theoretical orientation(s) you gravitate towards also links back with self-reflection and should be a natural extension of your personality and therapeutic style.
Managing your deep emotions is a critical component of the therapeutic process for you as a highly sensitive therapist. Understanding your own sensitivity and developing coping strategies, such as mindfulness and self-reflection, can help prevent burnout and maintain your emotional regulation.
Additionally, having a strong support system and a solid therapeutic framework can provide you with the tools and resources needed to provide effective therapy for the long-term. By being aware of your emotions and taking steps to understand them, highly sensitive therapists can improve provide your clients with the support and healing that they seek.
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Shannon Heers is a psychotherapist, approved clinical supervisor, guest blogger, and the owner of a group psychotherapy practice in the Denver area. Shannon helps adults in professional careers manage anxiety, depression, work-life balance, and grief and loss. Follow Firelight Supervision on Instagram.