The day I failed the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE) was the best day of my life. I didn’t know this on the day it happened, of course, because my judgment was clouded by lots of tears, snot and defeat.
You know those classmates or colleagues who seem to easily earn A’s on tests without having to put a whole lot of energy into studying? Yeah, me too, and I’m not one of those people. I’ve always done pretty well in school, but I’ve had to work really hard to earn high grades.
Having insight into your strengths and weaknesses as a learner is half the battle when it comes to preparing for examinations because once you have identified your shortcomings, you can target those areas and try to bridge the knowledge or study skill gaps and (hopefully) successfully conquer whatever test is in front of you. After years of being both a student and an educator, I know my learning style and how to target my weaknesses — or so I thought until I became a miserable failure, hyperventilating on the phone to my mother like a child as I broke the news that I hadn’t passed the NCMHCE.
How did I prepare to fail my test, you ask? Diligently. I did a lot of preparation. I worked really hard for that big “F.” I consulted with colleagues who had successfully passed their exams about the materials they had used to prepare, I studied every day for three months, my husband quizzed me in the mornings before work and I performed really well on the practice exams before I went into the real deal.
I was ready. I was ready to pass something for which I had worked so hard. I was ready to finally see the letters LMHC (licensed mental health counselor) after my name. I was ready to reach more people in need. I was ready to experience this rite of passage. Or so I thought until I had to cancel the celebratory dinner planned for after the exam because I obviously wasn’t going to celebrate being such a pathetic loser.
For a while, I thought I failed the exam because I had a panic attack. Sometimes I still like to tell myself that was it. It couldn’t possibly be that I was unprepared or didn’t possess the knowledge required to independently practice — no way, it was just panic, and it was totally out of my control.
In my defense, I did have a panic attack. I saw that I was getting many answers wrong in a row, and I was certain it meant failure. Class, what do we know about self-fulfilling prophecies? If we tell ourselves we are going to fail, we likely will, and that’s exactly what I did.
However, this panic wasn’t reduced to feeling like I was going to have a heart attack because of failing alone. This panic was more dynamic and was perpetuated by realizing the truth — I wasn’t ready.
If I had been more prepared, I would have been able to recover from losing all of those points. If I had been more prepared, I would have had a larger margin for errors. I panicked because any sensible counselor would have entertained the same question I did: If I’m not prepared to pass this exam, am I really the best person to be in a position of counseling clients who deserve the highest quality of care? Pondering this question caused me more emotional distress than failing the exam ever could. I bet a lot of registered interns who have failed ask themselves the same thing.
Feeling grateful for failure
On the day I failed the NCMHCE, I experienced a spectrum of emotions during a 24-hour period. First, I was selfishly discouraged and wondered, “Why me?” Then I was embarrassed and wanted to save face, so I thought about not telling anyone that I had even taken the exam. But I realized that I can’t keep my mouth shut about anything for longer than five seconds, so everyone who encountered me over the prior three months was anticipating my good news about passing. Next, I was mad. I was angry with anyone who had passed a test ever in their lives. I was especially angry with colleagues who seemed to not study at all but managed to pass the exam on their first attempt.
After I got through all of these confusing emotions, I started trying to make sense of things by asking questions such as the one I mentioned previously: “Am I, The Failure, truly delivering the best care to my clients?” By the way, I still don’t know what the answer was to this question at the time. In hindsight, I realize the important thing was that I was asking it in the first place.
Reflecting on this question and client welfare was what motivated me to make a decision. I decided I would throw myself a pity party for one day, then move on with my life and make passing this exam my top priority.
Looking back, I can see that passing the exam wasn’t necessarily my goal. Instead, my goal was to pass and feel like I should have passed. If I had passed on my first attempt, I can say with complete confidence that it would have been the result of pure luck. My clients would not have been getting the caliber of care they deserved because I would have been a licensed professional with a false sense of confidence about my abilities. Taking this into consideration, I became grateful for being a failure because, in my case, being a failure meant not being a phony.
So, I woke up the next day and stuck to my guns about my renewed perspective. I wasn’t going to rehash the pain and suffering associated with failing because I was glad for it. What was done was done, and if a client were in a similar situation, I would pull out every tool in my Counselor Tool Belt to help lead that person to a place where he or she could see the silver lining in all of this.
I wanted to lead by example. I told everyone I failed, including my clients. I wanted them to know that I was human too. I also felt like this piece of professional disclosure was important coming from a registered intern (no, I don’t believe it is unethical if you choose to keep this sort of information to yourself unless you have a contract with an employer outlining terms and expectations in the event you fail).
So, everyone knew I had failed, but more importantly, everyone knew I was determined to overcome the defeat, and that was very empowering. The support from friends, family and colleagues was so warm and loving. And as a result of talking openly about my failure, I learned about others’ experiences with not passing the NCMHCE. Collectively, we embraced emotionally, and I was reminded once again why being in this profession is such a tremendous gift.
The waiting game
Those of us who fail the NCMHCE are forced to sit around for three months sulking in our misery before we are eligible to retake the exam and ultimately amend our stories of the journey toward licensure. I spent those three months confronting the reality that I needed to be more prepared for the test. I needed to feel more prepared for the purposes of alleviating my anxiety, both while studying and so I could manage my panic during my second attempt at the hardest exam I’d ever taken.
I spent more time with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — a task I don’t think I executed well the first time. I developed some systematic ways of measuring if I was improving and how. I turned preparing for the exam into a second full-time job. I owed this to myself and to the clients who meant so much to me. As it turns out, I also owed this to the baby growing in my belly.
I took my exam for the second time exactly three months after failing the initial attempt. I walked into that testing room committed to not standing in my own way again and prepared to give my second attempt everything I had. I went to the bathroom in between every simulation because taking breaks and going slow is really helpful in terms of managing test anxiety. Going to the bathroom often is also very helpful to a pregnant lady who has a fetus doing back handsprings on her bladder.
When I went into the bathroom, I prayed to every god I knew. I practiced deep breathing. I used imagery techniques to visualize peaceful and tranquil landscapes.
And I talked to my unborn baby: “I want to set an example for you, little one. One day, I want to be able to tell you that I did it right this time. I have already learned so much from you, and you aren’t even here yet, but if there is anything I hope you can learn from me it’s that success tastes so much sweeter when you know you’ve truly earned it. There will be times in your life when you will fail. The experience of picking yourself up afterward will vary depending on the failure. But it’s not the getting knocked down that defines who you are; it’s how you define failure and success and how you conceptualize the complexity of personal growth and development. I pray to this mass-produced picture of a forest in this H&R Block bathroom with customers yelling at accountants about their taxes on the other side of this door that I can give you the same strength you are giving me right now.” I truly used every channel I could to communicate to myself that I could do it this time.
Moment of truth
When I walked out of the testing room through the lobby four hours later to get my results, I saw my husband still waiting for me in the parking lot. He had a good view of the facility from his parking spot, so he had seen me come out of the testing room and walk through the lobby 10 times previously to use the restroom. Each time he had wondered if this was the time. Was I done? Was this it? Had I just drank too much water, or was I done failing again? Had I passed? Was today the day I was going to finally get to drink my celebratory sparkling apple juice?
I walked over to the proctor to get my results. I learned the first time how this process worked from the way the proctor turned my results sheet over and gave me that look of “poor you.” This time, he grabbed my score sheet from the printer and, before handing it to me, looked at it and said, “Wow, great job.”
I lunged at this complete stranger, hugged him tightly, thanked him for being the bearer of such relieving news and bolted into the arms of my husband outside, who cried tears of joy and accomplishment with me. I didn’t get the sparkling apple juice, but I did get an ice cream sundae from Dairy Queen. It was the most delicious treat I’ve ever consumed, not because it was exceptionally good ice cream or because I was so hungry that even tire rubber would have tasted incredible at that moment, but because I had achieved something great. Passing was obviously a desirable outcome, but this victory was not about passing — it was about overcoming an obstacle.
A new sense of purpose
As a result of my personal failure, I’ve been inspired and made a career out of helping others pass the NCMHCE. In addition, I’ve dedicated all of my doctoral research to examining the impact of test anxiety on academic performance as it relates to this exam.
The footnotes are this. There are generally two types of highly anxious test takers. The first type fails tests because of test anxiety alone (they have problems retrieving information in the testing situation). The second type fails tests because of test anxiety and poor study skills (they have problems both with encoding the information when they are studying and retrieving the information in the testing situation). I recommend looking into Moshe Naveh-Benjamin’s numerous studies exploring the variables that contribute to the relationship between test anxiety and academic performance if you’re interested in this kind of stuff.
In any case, the bottom line for me is that my failure helped me find myself and a career path that truly makes me happy. Let’s be serious, how many people can say that? If you’re reading this, you’re probably a counselor, so you know from your clients that the answer is “not too many.” Before I became a failure, I was treading water trying to figure out what I was passionate about. For me, failing turned out to be my one-way ticket to a fulfilling job.
Overcoming personal barriers
Everyone has a different demon to fight when it comes to attempting the NCMHCE. For me, I needed to do some serious reflection on what this exam represented to me before I could be successful. An additional distraction during the time I was studying for my second attempt was a high-risk pregnancy and the associated fear that comes with that type of a personal speed bump.
After ending an abusive 25-year marriage, Danielle pursued her master’s degree in mental health counseling when she was 57 years old. Getting back into the swing of studying wasn’t easy for her. She reached out to me after failing the NCMHCE five times and passed on her sixth attempt. She said, “I don’t care how many times it takes me to pass this, I want it, and I will get it.”
Gene’s boss told him that he would be terminated at the end of the month if he didn’t pass on his third attempt. This presented incredible stressors for Gee as the breadwinner for a family of five.
Passing the exam for Connie on her third time meant that she could finally provide services to mothers who had lost young children. This was important to her because her entire career had been inspired by the loss of her 3-year-old daughter in a drowning accident.
Jack was waiting to propose to his girlfriend until after he passed the NCMHCE because he wanted to provide for her and felt like he couldn’t give her the life she wanted until he was licensed.
Jessica became unemployed as a result of failing her exam; Alex gave up going to her kids’ soccer games for three months; George balanced a 60-hour workweek so he could afford study materials while preparing for his fourth attempt.
We all have incredible sources of inspiration, but we also have legitimate barriers (as well as irrelevant excuses) that can stand in the way of our success. With that said, however, we are counselors. We have been there for clients who are up against obstacles we can barely wrap our heads around. We struggle, we suffer and we weep for the clients who have experienced devastation. We are trained to provide support and guidance to those going through struggles. We help people make meaning out of their tragedies, and then we move on to the next thing.
Epictetus said, “When something happens, the only thing in your power is your attitude toward it; you can either accept it or resent it.” The very foundation of cognitive behavior theory is rooted in the idea that it’s not the event itself that causes emotional distress but the meaning we assign to the event. It is easier to look back at this journey once you are at the end of it with a positive attitude, but it is during the treacherous climb to the summit that the valuable internal work takes place. This parallels the counseling process.
You may fail the NCMHCE. In fact, statistically, failing is likely (40-45 percent of people do). Or you may pass. You might not even define scores on a test like this as an effective evaluative tool to measure success. But regardless of your interpretation of these concepts, don’t forget that you are the one invited into the lives of people during their most challenging battles. You are the person who helps them suit up, fight and win.
We should want for ourselves what we want for our clients — the ability to turn our most difficult experiences into an opportunity for self-discovery.
Alyson Carr is a licensed mental health counselor with a doctorate in counselor education from the University of South Florida. Contact her through her website at dralysoncarr.com.