What To Do When You Feel You’ve Failed as a Counselor
By Alicia Kwande
As a therapist, it seems to come for us all at one time or another; the inevitable “failures.” Sometimes there are seemingly small things: you tried an intervention that fell flat; a client doesn’t return to see you. And there are the major things that counselors experience: a client relapses, someone files a grievance, or the unthinkable happens and a client commits suicide. Whether passing or constant, whether seemingly small or insurmountable, that sense of failure can hit you at any time. You avoid it at all costs, of course. But you’re working with humans and that is quite unpredictable. What are we to do?
Find your people
Recognizing that you will feel as though you’ve failed at some point (or points) in your career doesn’t have to result in pessimism, avoidance, or worry. When you hit that point of feeling like you’ve failed as a therapist, turn to those who support you. It’s helpful to have at least one other counselor among your supportive people, as they can connect in ways that those outside the profession may not fully understand. Identify people that you can trust, people who will listen, and those who are able to take a nonjudgmental stance towards you.
No one needs to be kicked when they’re down, so make a point to steer clear of people known to lecture, shame, or who just don’t listen and connect with what you are experiencing. This may include a supervisor, colleague, or other counselors with whom you consult. And it may make sense to seek out your own counseling when you find yourself really stuck in a sense of failure.
Once you’ve figured out who your people are, and it can be just one or two people, allow yourself to be vulnerable. Failure tends to feel very shameful and you may find yourself wanting to hide away in those feelings. It’s easy to internalize things that have gone wrong and start talking to yourself as if you are a failure. Sharing the ways that you are feeling brings a new perspective into the situation.
A good friend or colleague will not tell you you are a failure; they will be able to see what happened and see you for all of who you are, even if you did make a mistake. Shame doesn’t grow well in the light; it likes dark and hidden places, so dig into your courage and choose not to allow it to grow.
A feeling of failure is often just that – a feeling. Even if you have made a mistake, there are often many options before you may conclude that you have failed as a counselor. Again, the outside perspective is so helpful here because feeling like a failure tends to be a strong feeling and you may struggle to see around the feeling. Seek advice, gather information about what happened and what others have done in similar situations, do what you can to determine your role in what happened, and develop action steps to move forward. Use accountability to keep yourself taking any actions steps you’ve identified.
Because of the nature of counseling and how much empathy is required of you, your clients’ choices will likely deeply affect you at times. It is also important to develop emotional boundaries so that you can process what belongs to you and what belongs to the client. Colleagues who know you well play a very useful role here as well, as they can speak to your work and character and offer regularly that dose of truth and reality.
Failing is not the end
Whether you’ve been in the field for one month or 20 years, you may likely experience this feeling once more. While we can expect it, we don’t have to fear it or hide from the chance that we will mess up, make mistakes, and we will feel like we’ve failed. Building in the supports, practices, and resources you will need ahead of time will save you time and pain in shame and sorrow. Find your people, practice vulnerability even while things are going well, and practice reframing the negative self-talk that comes up. Your failings will become stepping stones on your career path, as difficult as they can be in the moment.