Why Therapists Should Not Always Have to Be on Duty
Therapists need a break sometimes.
Posted July 1, 2022 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
- In sessions, all of the therapist's time and energy are focused on the client—but this cannot be sustained outside the therapy room.
- Therapeutic clients should experience accountability for their behavior and respect the therapist’s boundaries.
- If a therapist cannot maintain their own mental and physical health, it is more difficult for them to effectively help their clients.
While my previous posts have focused on cognitive behavioral therapy, today I am going to focus on a myth that covers all types of psychotherapy: the idea that therapists should always be "on duty" or always using their clinical skills even outside of the therapy room, such as in other work situations or with family and friends.
This is a frequent myth that I hear from non-mental health professionals, but there are several reasons why expecting therapists and psychologists to always be on duty is destructive.
First, the therapeutic relationship is unique. The majority of family, friend and even employment relationships go two ways. One person does something for the other person and that other person then does something in return for the first person. This does not mean that most relationships keep score or are perfectly balanced but the relationships alternate the focus of the conversation or activities. The therapeutic relationship is different. A psychotherapeutic relationship goes one direction; all the time and energy are focused on the client, not the therapist. Expecting someone to constantly be focused on others and not ask for anything in return is a perfect way to set people up for burnout. It can be very emotionally taxing.
Deploying this myth can also lead to unequal distribution of emotional labor. Most therapists and psychologists are women and expecting them to continue to be therapists all the time puts an unfair burden on them. Such an unequal distribution of labor only furthers burnout.
Boundaries and accountability
Another reason expecting therapists and psychologists to always be using their therapeutic skills is detrimental are the effects on boundaries and accountability. I often see this myth deployed so the person using the myth does not have to change their behavior and can avoid consequences of their actions. The person using the myth does not have to experience accountability for their behavior or respect the therapist’s boundaries.
I believe that this myth partially originates from the belief that therapists have to endure all manner of poor behavior in therapy. However, this is another myth, so we essentially have one myth reinforcing another. All reputable therapists set very clear and distinct boundaries with their clients. A therapist would not continue to see a client who physically threatened them, yelled at them, or did not respect boundaries about when the therapist is available to talk to the client. So while therapists might have to handle difficult client behavior in therapy sessions, they still set boundaries around what behavior is patently unacceptable. If therapists will not endure certain behaviors during therapy session, then it does not make sense to expect therapists to endure the same behaviors outside therapy sessions.
Now regardless of where the myth originates, expecting therapists to always be on duty is harmful to both parties. It detrimentally affects the therapist’s mental and sometimes physical health and it prevents the other party from properly learning boundaries and accountability. If a therapist cannot be healthy, it makes it more difficult for them to effectively help their clients. The easy fix for this myth is to treat therapists just like anyone else when they are not your actual mental health provider.
To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.