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Help for the Counselor Who Feels Overwhelmed

None of us can begin to counsel without a dependence on the Lord.

Feb 18, 2021

Recently a conversation with a friend ended with the question, “How do you handle meeting with so many women without getting overwhelmed?” This caring person became a friend because we have spent hours together talking through some very difficult issues in her life. The Lord is also using my friend to help others, hence the question. She was asking out of concern for my counseling load, but also for herself. She was wondering about her own ability to minister to others without breaking down emotionally under the load. Here are some thoughts we developed:

1. Remember that not all counselors can handle a similar caseload.

Burnout can develop when we take on more cases than we can handle. We need to realize that the Lord has given each believer gifts “for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7). Each counselor is “empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills” (1 Corinthians 12:11). Paul reminds us that we are not to pass judgment on the servant of another. “It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand” (Romans 14:4). This passage is in the context of the one who has weak faith. We are not to judge those who can do less or envy those who can do more. The Lord is the master of each of us.

When Jesus described the distribution of the talents, He illustrated the varied amounts of gifts we are given (Matthew 25:14-30). It does the counselor no good to compare ministry capacity with anyone else. We are simply called to faithfully use our talents. I have a friend who could only counsel one person at a time because his compassionate heart was filled to capacity by a single case. Ask for the Lord’s help in defeating covetousness and envy. Be content with the capacity He has given you.

2. Be ready to humbly admit your limits.

This point follows the one above. It is a good exercise to humbly acknowledge our weakness. I often tell myself that I would rather have grace than be opposed by God. “But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble’” (James 4:6). The Lord values faithful service in His kingdom no matter how wide or how narrow (Hebrews 6:10). Jesus also limited His earthly ministry to a small number of people in a small nation. Ask for the Lord’s help in defeating pride. Be humble about your weaknesses.

3. Don’t waste your time second-guessing yourself.

This advice is so helpful when I keep it in mind. Sometimes my husband needs to say it out loud to me. Another friend and I reminded ourselves of his advice the other day, “If you lovingly listen to your counselee and read the Scripture with them, that is probably more than they have heard from anyone else and is more powerful than anything else” (Hebrews 4:12). Spending time agonizing over what you should have said can make you feel overwhelmed. Insecurities can run rampant. Ask for the Lord’s help in defeating self-doubt. Be ready to let the Lord use your imperfect self.

4. Remember that the Lord does the work. We are only His instruments.

None of us can begin to counsel without a dependence on the Lord. The confidence we have is based on our belief that the Holy Spirit will act through His Word (2 Timothy 3:16-17). We listen carefully and apply the Scripture where it is needed. It helps to remember that progress is made “not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts” (Zechariah 4:6). God gives spiritual growth (1 Corinthians 3:6). Not all will listen, but we are to call all to the truth (Matthew 28:19-20). We are not the Savior, we just point people to the Savior. Ask the Lord to work through you. Be ready to give Him all the glory when He does.

5. Be aware of signs of burnout and take preventative action.

Constant thoughts about your cases can hinder your daily life. Realistically, some counseling situations will come to mind more than others. In 1 Corinthians 12:26, Paul states, “If one member suffers, all suffer together…” This is what we are called to experience (Galatians 6:2). But the counselor can feel the burden to the extreme. The solution might be to ask others for help. You can talk through the case (while respecting confidentiality) with another counselor. This could give you a new approach and other resources you haven’t considered. Commit to pray for your counselee each time you are tempted to worry.

Counselors can experience sleeplessness because of anxiety. Synonyms for “overwhelmed” resemble violent emotions: crushed, defeated, destroyed, engulfed, swamped. Paul felt the “daily pressure on [him] of [his] anxiety for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:28). A case or two can send the counselor into a dark place; it feels like an unbearable weight. When the burden is this heavy, I remind myself that the counselee has carried hers longer than I have and to a greater extent. I am only sharing her load. Now I am in a better position to empathize with her. The solution is to counsel yourself with the verses you would give others who have anxiety.

Discouragement and despair are symptoms of counselor burnout. I have a friend who felt inadequate and wondered if she should even continue counseling. As we talked, we both realized that she had been dealing with several exceptionally difficult cases which hadn’t come to resolution. Other circumstances were preventing progress. She benefited from another look at Adams’ “50 Failure Factors.”

The compassionate counselor can become overwhelmed. Just recognizing this possibility can be a step toward prevention. In summary: 1. Do not compare yourself with others, 2. Be humble about your limitations, 3. Know that you are not the savior, the Lord is, and 4. Watch for signs of burnout and take preventative steps. The Lord will use you and give you His strength.

Reflection Questions

  1. Have you experienced symptoms of inadequacy and/or burnout? Seek to implement some of these suggestions.
  2. Do you have a friend who is overwhelmed with counseling? Pray for that friend and offer practical help, such as offering Scriptures of encouragement.
  3. Consider asking for help in evaluating your counseling caseload.