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Why do therapists need a community?

Updated: Sep 17, 2019

In recent months I have come to believe that a deeply ingrained absence of true belonging is at the root of the vast majority of the social and political issues of our time. I also know I am not alone in thinking this. Belonging, in the sense that Brené Brown ascribes to the word, is when people are their authentic selves with each other, in comparison to “fitting in” - when people adjust and adapt who they are in order to feel accepted in a group.

People “who have the deepest sense of true belonging are people who also have the courage to stand alone when called to do that. They are willing to maintain their integrity and risk disconnection in order to stand up for what they believe in.”(*) Can you imagine the atrocities in our human history that could have been avoided if more of us had known how to belong in this way? Are we not duty-bound to learn this skill so that we can avoid the atrocities lurking in our near and distant future?

In the corporate world, many are waking up to the fact that when there is no culture of belonging, employees are less engaged, less motivated, less productive and less likely to stick around. Even more serious than a lack of productivity at work - loneliness has dire consequences for us as individuals: Research has shown that “while obesity reduces longevity by 20%, drinking by 30% and smoking by 50%, loneliness reduces it by a whopping 70%.” (*)

In a recent systematic review, researchers found that over half of their sampled psychotherapists reported moderate‐high levels of burnout (*). Over half! Just to offer some comparison, a study researching intensivists (physicians working in intensive care) noted an “exceptionally high level of burnout” at 46.5% of their respondents (*). As therapists we need to take the prevalence of burnout in our profession particularly seriously considering that it is defined as a psychological condition characterised by emotional exhaustion even to the extent that the person can “lose all concern, all emotional feeling for the people they work with, and come to treat them in a detached or even dehumanized way.” (*). The consequences of this for our clients cannot be underestimated.

Because, however, we live in a world where harmed profit is taken more seriously than harmed people, the main struggle to understand and combat burnout has been in the corporate world. Stress-reduction, mindfulness, reducing workload, the 4 day week - all of these solutions sound great but are also treating burnout as a condition in the individual rather than a symptom of a disease in the system. However, research is beginning to confirm what for many has always been obvious: there is a link between burnout and a lack of social support, human connection and positive social relationships with coworkers. (*) Whereas the “result of feeling socially connected (...) is greater psychological well-being, which translates into higher productivity and performance. This is true in part because social connectedness leads to higher self-esteem, which means employees are more trusting, empathic, and cooperative — leading others to trust and cooperate with them.” (*)

In the UK, half of the therapists who are members of the BACP work in private practice. It is likely that this figure is even greater in practitioners who are not members of the BACP. That is a lot of us, who work in an isolated way, without positive social relationships with coworkers, without the positive effects of belonging, without a support system. I am coming to believe that it is an ethical imperative for those in private practice to seek out a local professional community and to pursue true, difficult, challenging belonging with one another. For our clients, for ourselves. Yes, we may have supportive families and groups of friends, but so do the physicians who burn out, so do the employees who become demotivated. It is not enough, our work needs to be held by a village. Come, let’s build a village.

Jo Byron-Russell is the founder of Gather, a psychotherapist in private practice, a counselling tutor, a mother, a wife, a human, a blessed collection of cells that are currently cooperating.

Gather is a therapy centre in Lewes, East Sussex and a community for therapists and facilitators who value and pursue social responsibility, belonging and accountability. We are figuring it all out, together.

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