Illustration of woman behind a curtain in therapy session
The Winter Issue

What It's Like to Absorb the Mental Anguish of Others Daily

Working as a psychotherapist means living a life of sacred privilege. Those who are hurting, have survived unthinkable trauma, and may even be considering ending their lives turn to us with trust and a belief that we can help. When we do our job within the scope of our legal and ethical boundaries, we have the gift of seeing lives change.

However, when we step outside of our scope of competency, we can cause more harm than good. We are reminded of this constantly while we undertake our studies, which include multiple years of post-undergrad schooling and thousands of hours receiving clinical supervision in our workplace.

One thing I didn’t hear as much during my training? The intensity of what it is like to be completely present with those experiencing immense emotional pain. However, being younger with less mental health work experience under my belt already placed me at a higher risk of burnout and emotional fatigue.

During my graduate program and early years of post-graduate practice, I worked in a trauma recovery center for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. This experience will forever be one of my most humbling and formative journeys. In that setting, I was reminded of the fighting spirit within each of us, the intense hunger to move from surviving to thriving, and the heartbreaking pitfalls of our court system. In this experience, I also learned what it is like to absorb the mental anguish of others.

An Intuitive Gift

As a child, I was innately attuned to the emotions of others. For example, I could sense if a teacher was frustrated or a classmate was experiencing trouble at home. In my own home, I was exposed to others' raw emotions daily. Though I now wince when considering the weight this places on a child, I am able to acknowledge how this heightened sensitivity has also been a gift.

In my work at the trauma recovery center, I would answer calls to the center’s crisis hotline. This experience was intimate and challenging. I sometimes had less than one minute to counsel an individual through a dangerous situation, rattling off the address of a safe house as fast as I could. It wouldn’t be uncommon for my heart rate to quicken or my palms to get sweaty as I supported folks fleeing unsafe situations.

At the end of my shift, I often wondered about the fate of various hotline callers, hoping they made it to the safe house, mulling over the support I’d provided, hoping it served them well. Over time, I felt frayed by these questions, my body fatigued by my fight or flight response to others’ crises. I began looking at our current culture as a whole and became frustrated by our world’s overwhelming need for helpers and an underwhelming number of hands on deck.

The Healer’s Dilemma

Carl Jung once referred to those in helping fields as “wounded healers,” accurately stating that many who enter vocations to help others are motivated to do so due to past adverse experiences.

I began looking at our current culture as a whole and became frustrated by our world’s overwhelming need for helpers and an underwhelming number of hands on deck.

According to Jung, when past pain points have been worked through, clinicians can offer a deeper level of empathy to their patients. While this may not ring true for everyone, it certainly rings true for me. Being exposed to addiction issues in my family system and losing a parent as a young adult all led me to my pursuit of therapy.

As a client in the therapy room, I saw how a deeper exploration of my lived experiences changed my day-to-day life. Deeply moved by this radical shift, I desired to help others have similar experiences, to support them in finding health despite hardship. Our wounds offer wisdom, but it is a healer's responsibility not to let the injuries of others impair them.

Absorbing the Energy of Others

A certain alchemy happens within the clinical relationship: transference and countertransference.


Transference refers to how clients might feel about me as their therapist. I may remind them of someone they love or greatly dislike, which can inform how they respond to our work together. Part of my job is to support the client in naming their transference and allowing them to examine what being in a therapeutic relationship with me means to them.

Often, this can lead to breakthroughs around past rejection they’ve felt or realizing their critical needs in a relationship.


Countertransference refers to how I feel about the client. The personal management of countertransference is one of a therapist's most important duties. Without checking my biases, absorption of the client’s emotions, or even identification with a client, I can lose my position as an objective party present to help a client learn about their mind.

This is the delicate dance of being an effective psychotherapist: holding unconditional compassion without taking on the suffering of others. 

When I begin to allow myself to have porous boundaries and absorb the pain of others, it is easy to believe that I must fix and completely eradicate the pain. Yet, doing so robs the patient of the dignity of their own experience. I am but an empathic guide who has tools to help heal trauma and support others in making meaning out of difficulties, but I am no one’s savior. 

Heeding the Red Flags

I’d be remiss if I weren’t completely honest—there are moments when I am struck by the resilience of humans, and there are moments when I feel frustrated by the immense need within this field.

Only 4% of the psychology workforce identifies as Black, 6% as Latinx, and 4% as Asian. 84% of the field identifies as White. Being a woman of color who specializes in trauma amongst people of color, I can feel overwhelmed by how many in my community are desperately ready to heal and how challenging it is for them to find a provider that looks like them. It is in these moments my hope is tested.

I am but an empathic guide who has tools to help heal trauma and support others in making meaning out of difficulties, but I am no one’s savior. 

Other times, I feel disillusioned by the pain humans can inflict on others. Sometimes I feel angered by the prevalence of interpersonal trauma that plagues our society. This is when I begin to notice the intensity of the collective mental anguish weighing on me.

My body always alerts me to this discrepancy first. I will feel an ache in the space where my neck connects to my shoulder, symbolically representing the emotional weight I feel on my shoulders, and physical exhaustion begins to peak. When my body raises the red flag, I must assess where I am soaking up the pain of others.

Clearing What Isn’t Mine

My ongoing goal is to clear the emotional discharge I am carrying from others, tend to my self-care, and avoid reaching a place where I feel emotional fatigue in my body. I am continually growing my ability to do so and am proud to say these instances of exhaustion are far and few between. This is due to a strong practice I’ve learned from trial and error, plus some insight from my trusted mentors.

First, when I begin my day, I start by remembering why I do this work. Due to my life experiences, I have long maintained a belief that there is always a path to hope. This belief stands as my north star in every session I facilitate. When I end my day, I make a point to leave the work at the office. I don’t schedule after-hours calls unless it is an immediate crisis, I don’t check my emails, and I don’t touch my work phone over the weekend.

Due to my life experiences, I have long maintained a belief that there is always a path to hope. This belief stands as my north star in every session I facilitate.

Doing so allows me to step out of my role as a psychotherapist and enjoy my life outside of my clinical responsibilities. Communicating these boundaries to my clients also models that it is OK to have boundaries in relationships.

After work, I come home and immediately shower. This is my quite literal way of washing the day away. My ongoing self-care ritual requires regular therapy sessions to ensure I am keeping my own ongoing personal healing process out of the way of my clients, never skipping meals no matter how busy I am, and scheduling lighthearted activities weekly. 

Practicing What I Preach

Feeling wounds that aren't yours impacts everyone, not just therapists and those in helping professions. Some may be navigating a dysfunctional home and are constantly around those suffering. Others may be in a relationship with someone grieving the loss of a loved one. You may work in an environment where many around you are burnt out. If my story resonates with you, consider how you can adopt some self-care and burnout prevention strategies

  • Therapy: Beginning with your own personal therapy is a great start. Finances can be a significant deterrent, but there are options for you. Open Path Collective is a therapy directory that provides sliding scale sessions between $30 and $60.
  • Practice an end-of-day ritual: Second, set a practice that consciously reminds you to let go of the day. For me, it is simply taking a shower. For others, it could be doing yoga, meditation, or even washing your hands.
  • Assess your surroundings: Sometimes we are in spaces that are simply emotionally charged. Other times, we need to implement boundaries.

Should you feel guilty about setting boundaries and limiting your emotional availability to others, I invite you to consider the purpose of boundary setting. We set boundaries with who and what we wish to keep in our life at a sustainable place. We end relationships with who and what we feel are no longer sustainable sources in our lives.

Through tending to our well-being, we afford ourselves the opportunity to show up for others, and there is nothing more radical than that. As Audre Lorde said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare." We need each other, but we offer nothing if we don't nourish ourselves first.

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Simionato GK, Simpson S. Personal risk factors associated with burnout among psychotherapists: A systematic review of the literature. J Clin Psychol. 2018;74(9):1431-1456. doi:10.1002/jclp.22615

  2. Straussner SLA, Senreich E, Steen JT. Wounded healers: a multistate study of licensed social workers’ behavioral health problems. Soc Work. 2018;63(2):125-133. doi: 10.1093/sw/swy012

  3. Nissen-Lie HA, Dahl HSJ, Høglend PA. Patient factors predict therapists’ emotional countertransference differently depending on whether therapists use transference work in psychodynamic therapy. Psychother Res. 2022;32(1):3-15. doi:10.1080/10503307.2020.1762947

  4. American Psychological Association. Psychology’s Workforce is Becoming More Diverse.

  5. Lorde, A. A Burst of Light: Essays. Ithaca, N.Y. :Firebrand Books, 1988

By Julia Childs Heyl
Julia Childs Heyl, MSW, is a clinical social worker and writer. As a writer, she focuses on mental health disparities and uses critical race theory as her preferred theoretical framework. In her clinical work, she specializes in treating people of color experiencing anxiety, depression, and trauma through depth therapy and EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) trauma therapy.