Asteya and The Therapist Burnout Pandemic
Asteya is the Sanskrit word for “non-stealing”. It is one of the “guidelines” of yoga, outlined in the Yoga Sutras, or “how to be” attitudes of yoga practice.
We can all resonate with this, as it’s similar to guidelines or commandments found in other religions and philosophical practices. It is a key moral that many of us believe in. But believing and practicing is another story.
There are many ways we practice asteya. Not stealing from the store or from our neighbors. Not stealing money or material goods. We can also consider the practice of asteya as it applies to being considerate of the time and energy of others, and not stealing these precious resources from them. This relates to cultural appropriation and inequality, and avoiding stealing from indigenous and diverse groups of peoples. But it also applies to how we avoid stealing from ourselves.
Forbes recently released an article, titled “We Need to Talk About Another Pandemic Mental Health Crisis: Therapist Burnout”. You have probably seen it, or if you have not I’m sure you could guess what it’s about based on the title and your professional experience. You know it, I know it, our colleagues know it. Therapist burnout is a whole new flavor of shizzle after persevering through the last 12 months.
So here are the facts. Therapists are tired, for many obvious reasons. Zoom fatigue, personal life stressors and traumas, counseling people through things we never learned how to counsel people through in school. Huge demand, fewer no shows, more people coming to therapy than ever before, an already broken mental health system trying to manage these new numbers, therapist isolation, and fewer opportunities to reset.
What I hear from the many therapists I consult with every month is that there is the tendency to take on more clients, while taking fewer breaks throughout the day, with fewer no shows, and little to no actual vacation time scheduled in. You, dear healer, are a finite resource. You cannot defy the laws of physics, nor “squeeze blood from a stone”. Though the crisis is very real, and the demand is very high, that does not mean you have more bandwidth, time, or energy to meet it.
When we try to squeeze blood from a stone, or defy the laws of physics, we rob ourselves. We forget the principle of asteya, and become our own energy vampires, stealing the finite, precious, life force energy we need to meet the crisis and the demand that stands before us. Many of us, myself included, struggle to set boundaries with our professional time and energy…especially when the suffering is so great. Of course we do! It’s part of the reason we got into this work in the first place…to ease suffering. So rather than thinking about pushing yourself to “do more”, consider how that attitude robs you of the exact resource you need to be helpful in this time. You cannot be nearly as helpful to others when you’re burnt out. When you’re burnt out you’re more likely to get forgetful, to lack clinical creativity and clarity, to show up unattuned, to be unprepared, to miss red flags, or council from an anxious or depressed state which certainly isn’t going to be good for your client. In this sense, we can even see how robbing ourselves trickles down and robs our clients.
Be mindful of this principle of asteya, and the many ways to embrace “non-stealing” in your life. I, like many of you, struggle most with asteya as it relates to stealing from myself. That is part of the stickiness of being a helper. We want to help and therefore can easily overextend. But I encourage you to reflect on how you can be more true and kind to yourself, how you can practice asteya as it relates to burnout, and how to keep your healing light bright. For a dim lamp is a poor guide through the darkness.