How to Stay Motivated in the Field of Counseling

People experience the ups and downs of being a worker in all professions. Even though there are many rewards to being a counselor, some days won’t feel so great. Dealing with insurance companies, office politics, and working with people who are mentally ill can take its toll—even on the most dedicated helping professionals.

All of these aspects and others can cause a decrease in motivation personally and professionally.

A lack of motivation can be caused by a variety of sources. These include stress, change, or physical condition. Other times, a lack of motivation can be a signal to make important changes in your career and lifestyle. 

Getting to the bottom of a lack of motivation can be more complicated than just digging down deep and pushing through.

Burnout, Vicarious Trauma, and Compassion Fatigue

Counselors face a variety of stresses on the job, including the risk of burnout, vicarious trauma, and compassion fatigue, which can lead to lowered motivation.

Compassion fatigue is known as caring too much. When you are empathic, your energetic boundaries are at risk of absorbing too much of your client’s feelings, thoughts, and experiences. The result is you end up feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, and unmotivated to continue the work of counseling. These symptoms can prevent you from empathizing or having compassion towards others and even yourself.

Being aware that you are compassionate can help you know when you are overextending or over-giving. It is essential to maintain limits, such as keeping work at work, taking lunch and dinner breaks, along with instituting your own self-care practices outside of work. A healthy balance between work and home is essential to being a compassionate counselor.

Vicarious trauma can develop from compassion fatigue and occur when you work with clients who have experienced trauma. When you lack professional or personal boundaries, your fundamental beliefs about the world can change from repeated exposure to traumatic material. It can be traumatizing to hear another’s trauma or too much traumatic material throughout the day.

Being aware of any trauma symptoms you are experiencing is essential. Seeking supervision and your own therapy can help decrease instances of vicarious trauma and decrease your caseload if it is heavy with clients who have experienced trauma.

Burnout is the physical and emotional exhaustion counselors experience with low job satisfaction. This experience leaves counselors feeling powerless and overwhelmed at work. You may have too much workload or receive inadequate support from your work environment.

Burnout was described by De Hert (2020):

“These include warning symptoms in the early phase (increased commitment to goals and exhaustion), followed by a phase of reduced commitment (towards patients and clients, towards others in general, towards work, towards increased demands), emotional reactions and blaming (depression, aggression), finally leading to reduction in cognitive performance, motivation, creativity, and judgment, flattening of emotional, social, and intellectual life, psychosomatic reactions and despair.” 

Some counselors who switch jobs or occupations may find relief from burnout. Those who experience compassion fatigue or vicarious trauma would not find increased motivation by switching jobs. Another piece of burnout is having unrealistic work expectations, which can drive you to do too much. Switching jobs would not relieve burnout if a counselor’s burnout is due to these faulty thoughts.

When you create therapeutic boundaries, consider the stress you manage at home and in the office. Additional stressors, when added to your therapeutic work, can create a vulnerability for compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma, and burnout. This is why therapeutic boundaries are vital to every counselor’s well-being and effectiveness.

Rule Out Mental and Physical Health Concerns

If you have lost motivation, go to your primary care doctor and get a complete physical. This is to rule out any physical issues contributing to energy loss. Many medical conditions can cause you to feel anxious, fatigued, or depressed. Stress is also a leading contributor to health conditions. 

After you have a physical, you may want to consider if you have an underlying mental health concern. Depression, anxiety, adjustment disorders, attention deficit, and other mental health issues are symptoms of low motivation. You may benefit from short-term counseling and medication management.

Ways to Increase or Maintain Motivation

Remember your why: What was your reason for entering the profession in the first place? Most counselors desire to help others or understand their mental health or wellness. Think back to before you entered college or when you decided to enter the counseling field and write down your reason. Read it often to remind you of your why.

Get clear on your professional goals: Overwhelming circumstances can cause a lack or drop in motivation. Write out your grand vision as a counseling professional and then explain your intention. Consider what you want to accomplish in the short and long term by creating specific measurable goals. 

These objectives could be attending a training session, obtaining certification in a specialty, working towards becoming a supervisor, or starting your private practice. Write down and monitor your progress with each goal. Stay open to new information and remain curious, this will help you stay motivated.

Create or re-establish a mission statement: This includes your primary purpose, values, and vision as a counseling professional. If you need help creating or maintaining professional goals, seek out a coach or obtain your own therapy.

If you have not done one already, make a business plan. You can read a book about creating one or hiring a professional. 

Take time off: Counselors are human beings, not machines. A counselor’s life can become unbalanced with too much focus on work, while neglecting other areas of life. Decreased motivation can be a sign you are working too much. It is important to take time off for a vacation or to relax. Relaxation is not doing nothing—it gives your mind and body space to decompress and process.

Revisit keepsakes or pick-me-ups: Look back on those letters, cards, drawings, or other keepsakes from appreciative past clients. Also, create a folder on your desktop or write down inspirational quotes to give yourself a mental boost when you need it.

Acknowledge your successes and accomplishments: Write down all you have achieved and celebrate this. Self-validation and praise can raise your motivation levels.

Reach out for support: Talk to your supervisor or colleagues about your feelings. Most counselors who have been in the field for a long time have experienced a loss of motivation. Talking to others can remind you that you are not alone in this feeling and others have worked through it. Even counselors need their own counselor at times. If you experience traumatic symptoms, have difficulty setting boundaries, or hold faulty expectations for yourself, therapy can help.

Be realistic: In all professions, people experience ups and downs. Some days will be challenging. Don’t fall into the comparison trap. Other counselors may look like they have it all together, especially if you look through their social media. Remember, people only highlight the best parts of their day on social media.

According to Li (2019): 

“Envy and self-efficacy act as a mediator and moderator, respectively, between upward social comparison on social network settings and depressive symptoms, indicating that reducing envy and enhancing self-efficacy should be feasible to alleviate the negative effect of social network setting use.” 

Keep your goals and vision focused on yourself. If you aren’t doing what you want to right now, be kind to yourself. Practice self-compassion and set some short- term realistic goals. 

Focus on what you have: Gratitude increases motivation and enhances our relationships. In a study by Emmons and Mishra (2010), “Why Gratitude Enhances Well-Being: What We Know, What We Need to Know,” students were instructed to list the goals they wanted to accomplish within the next two months and then randomly assigned either to count their blessings, to list their hassles, or to complete a neutral writing activity each week for ten weeks. Those in the gratitude group reported making relatively more progress toward their goals. 

Reward yourself: When you reach a goal, reward yourself somehow. You deserve it! Research conducted on rewards shows that they can increase motivation. According to Liu et al. (2022): 

“The results showed that the delivery time of the extra reward had an independent effect on intrinsic motivation and that the immediacy of the extra reward could enhance intrinsic motivation. In all three studies, it strongly demonstrated that immediate external extra rewards could truly enhance intrinsic motivation.”

Diversify: Sometimes, a change of pace is indicated to keep your brain engaged and motivated. This can be an opportunity to use your counseling talents in other areas. If possible, decrease your caseload and limit the number of clients you treat. Consider adding consulting, teaching, speaking, writing, and other forms of income you are passionate about.

Exercise: One occupational hazard of counselors is we spend a lot of time sitting. Sitting for extended periods can lead to various health issues, including muscle stiffness and fatigue. Make time to walk or do some other form of exercise to get your body moving. When you feel better physically, you can feel better mentally.

Lisa Hutchison, LMHC

Lisa Hutchison, LMHC

Writer & Contributing Expert
Lisa Hutchison, LMHC, is a licensed mental health counselor for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. She works for professionals who want to treat and prevent compassion fatigue. With over 20 years of psychotherapy experience, she helps her clients assert themselves, set boundaries, and increase their coping skills. Her specialty is decreasing stress, anxiety, and depression while increasing realistic methods of self-care for those who help others. Ms. Hutchison’s psychological advice has been featured in Reader’s Digest and the Huffington Post. Her articles have been published in numerous magazines, including Grief Digest and Today’s Caregiver. Lisa is the bestselling author of I Fill My Cup: A Journal for Compassionate Helpers and a faculty member writer for NetCE. Her latest continuing education unit publication is “Setting Ethical Limits for Caring and Competent Professionals.” She has taught creative writing in colleges and presented on boundaries for the compassionate helper; the use of expressive art to heal grief, anxiety, and depression; inspirational and motivational topics; and creative writing techniques.