Jude Austin, an assistant professor and clinical coordinator in the professional counseling program at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Texas, started his counseling practicum like many clinicians do — with the lofty goal of saving lives and empowering clients. So, when he saw a client who was in an abusive relationship, he tried to do just that, reassuring her that she was a strong, independent woman who could stand up to her husband. The client took his advice. She went home and told her husband that she didn’t have to take his abuse. He responded by hitting her.
The client returned to her next counseling session with a black eye, and Austin was stunned. After recovering, he handled the crisis by informing the client he would have to report the abuse even if she couldn’t do it herself. In that moment, he realized the power he had over clients’ lives and that his words and savior mentality could get someone killed if he wasn’t careful. After the incident, Austin sought his own therapy to better understand his identity and role as a counselor.
Counselors aren’t immune from making mistakes, so they often have to deal with “failure” in their line of work. However, Jennie Vila, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) in Edison, New Jersey, would consider Austin’s interaction with his client to be a learning experience, not a failure. In fact, she doesn’t believe in failure. If a counselor learns something after making a mistake, then it was a success after all, she asserts.
“You can still be hurt by some of these struggles, but you can use that to move forward,” says Vila, an American Counseling Association member who likes to speak about the importance of mindset. “You don’t have to stay in [the pain] if you’re willing to learn from it.”
Fortunately, counselors can also learn from the mistakes of others. Here are a few lessons that fellow counselors and ACA members say they have learned the hard way.
Lesson 1: Set realistic expectations
Jude Austin, an LPC and a licensed marriage and family therapist associate in private practice in Temple, Texas, and his twin brother, Julius Austin, a clinical therapist and coordinator of the Office of Substance Abuse and Recovery at Tulane University, agree that a common mistake many counselors make early in their careers is trying to be an “ideal” counselor rather than being themselves.
Julius, an LPC in Louisiana, admits that he personally experienced this. From the day he started his counseling program, he began forming an idealized version of the future “Dr. Austin” — a professional counselor who never made mistakes, instantly identified a client’s emotions, and knew exactly what to say in session. “As a beginning clinician, one of my biggest issues was getting over the fact that [this ideal] Dr. Austin didn’t exist,” he says.
When Vila, a certified integrative wellness and life coach and owner of the business Growth Mindset, was working at a hospital, she also held assumptions about what she should be doing in session. She had one client who during active episodes of mania would barge into Vila’s office and ask for help paying her bills. Vila would call the credit card, rental and utility companies while the client waited with her in the office. When the client didn’t have the patience to wait on hold any longer, she would abruptly stand up and try to leave the room. Vila would remind her that they would just have to start the waiting process all over again if they hung up now and called back at some later point.
Vila, who is now the assistant executive director of the New Jersey Counseling Association, had imagined counseling to be more than assisting a client with paying his or her bills. Feeling frustrated and discouraged, she eventually said to her supervisor, “What am I doing for this client? We are just calling and paying her bills in session. I’m not helping her.”
But the supervisor corrected Vila: “No, you are modeling what it means to have social skills in the world. That is what she needs right now. She doesn’t need to go into deeper issues.”
This experience helped Vila realize that “not every session or client you work with [requires] deep psychotherapy. Sometimes, it is life skills or soft skills. That’s its own kind of therapy.”
Lesson 2: Embrace that therapy is an active process
Counselors frequently wrestle with a sense of failure when they feel like they have messed up or could have done better. But sometimes, clients will tell a counselor directly that the counselor has failed them.
Sam Gladding, a professor of counseling at Wake Forest University and an LPC in North Carolina, recalls a time when he was too Rogerian and reflective with a client. At the end of the session, the client told him, “You haven’t done a good job. I expected you to be more active in working with me.”
Those words stung, but they also taught Gladding a valuable lesson — that counseling isn’t only about listening to the client or offering minimal encouragers such as “Uh-huh,” “I hear you” and “Tell me more.” Instead, counseling is an active process. Now he makes sure to ask clients more engaging questions such as “What would you like to do?” “What do you think would be a good response to this?” and “What are some choices you have in this matter?”
Also, instead of starting sessions by asking what clients want to talk about, Gladding asks, “What do you want to work on?” This phrasing sets a tone and expectation that counseling involves work and action.
At the end of the day, “it’s our interaction [with the client] that is going to make or break the session,” says Gladding, a past president of ACA. “We can’t control everything, so [we] control what we can, and we have to let the other happen as it will.”
Lesson 3: Be mindful of what you bring into the therapeutic relationship
Counseling is a professional relationship, and because of that, counselors’ personal lives can affect sessions. When Julius Austin was working as a clinician at a university during the final year of his doctoral program, his dissertation chair called him to say that his committee had requested some final revisions. This meant he would no longer graduate that spring. He was devastated and embarrassed. His family had already bought tickets and were excited to see him and his twin brother, Jude, graduate together. As soon as Julius hung up the phone, he received another call informing him that his next client had arrived.
In retrospect, Austin says he should have explained the situation to the client and rescheduled the session so he could have taken time to process the news he had just received. Instead, the client came in and started talking about her decision to drop out of school and travel the world to gain real-life experience.
Austin recalls opening his mouth and unleashing his frustration on the client by saying, “You know, traveling doesn’t work like that.” He proceeded to paint a grim picture of traveling — one filled with misplaced luggage, missed connections and lost photos.
The client was quiet for a few seconds before responding, “I’m sorry that you haven’t had a good experience traveling, but I don’t think that is the case for everyone. I think I’m going to leave now.”
Austin, co-author with his brother Jude of the recently published ACA book Surviving and Thriving in Your Counseling Program, says that he had a great relationship with the client up until that moment. But after that encounter, he never saw her again. He instantly regretted what he had said, but counselors don’t always get a second chance to fix their mistakes in session.
Austin still laments that his personal struggles made him lose a client that day, but the lesson he learned from the experience has positively influenced his handling of subsequent therapeutic relationships. He says he has grown more aware of how he feels in the moment and is more intentional about what he says to clients in session.
Similarly, Suzan Thompson, an LPC in private practice in Virginia Beach, Virginia, acknowledges allowing her own feelings to affect her relationship with a supervisee. In their final session together, the supervisee said, “I’ll contact you for supervision in the future.” Previous supervisees had made similar claims without following through, so Thompson was skeptical. Without explaining that fact, she replied, “I doubt you will.”
Thompson, the author of an ACA member blog on failure (“Toolkit for Transformation: Allow Yourself to Fail”), instantly regretted her response. She tried to process her mistake through supervision, journaling and emotional freedom techniques (EFT) tapping. The misstep still lingers in her mind, but she hasn’t made a similar mistake again. In fact, recently, when another supervisee said she would like to continue supervision, Thompson laughed and replied, “I would love to have you come back.”
Sometimes a simple regionalism or phrase can lead to a misstep. Because Jude Austin is from southern Louisiana, he says he often uses “man” in his greetings (for example, “Hey, man” or “How’s it going, man?”). Once, a new client who was in gender transition was waiting in the office. Austin walked out and casually said, “Hi, man. Ready to come back?”
Instantly, the client’s face changed. Austin didn’t yet realize what he had done, but he decided to address the tension the second they started their session: “It feels awkward right now. Did I do something to make you feel uncomfortable?”
After discovering his mistake — and that the client preferred they/their pronouns — Austin apologized and explained that “man” was a common phrase where he came from. Even so, he promised not to use the phrase again.
Lesson 4: Be forgiving of your mistakes
Jude Austin had just finished eight hours at a supervision site when he met with a client. It was a beautiful fall day, and the windows in the room were open. The client spoke in a low, soft voice, and before Austin knew it, he had nodded off for a few seconds. When he woke up, the client was crying and saying, “You’re right.”
The client hadn’t noticed that Austin had gone to sleep, so he asked what had most affected her during the past few seconds of the session. The client said, “You sat there listening so quietly.”
Austin was mortified. Even though he hadn’t been caught dozing, he knew he had failed the client because his job was to be present — and he hadn’t been. He sought supervision and realized that he wasn’t taking proper care of himself, including getting enough sleep.
Gladding, who is president of the International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors, also fell asleep once during a session with a client, but his client noticed and was not happy. Gladding apologized and tried to turn the focus back to the client by asking how people in the client’s own life might not be listening to him. (Gladding wrote about this experience in his book Becoming a Counselor: The Light, the Bright and the Serious, published by the American Counseling Association Foundation.)
Those experiences taught Austin and Gladding the importance not only of self-care but also of self-compassion.
Counselors have to be “forgiving of [their] mistakes, forgiving of [their] own thoughts and forgiving of [themselves],” Julius Austin adds.
From Vila’s perspective, self-compassion is the biggest component in whether someone views an event as a success or a failure. Counselors are great at reminding clients to practice self-compassion, but counselors need to apply that same courtesy to themselves, she says. Of course, that is often easier said than done. Vila finds it helpful to externalize her problems or frustrations, asking herself, “If I had a client who came to me with this problem, what would I tell them?”
Lesson 5: Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable
It’s common for beginning counselors to feel like impostors whose mistakes will mark them as unfit for the profession. For this reason, Gladding and Julius Austin both say that counselor educators and supervisors should be vulnerable and share their own missteps.
“As educators, it’s important to share times where we felt uncomfortable, where we failed, where we had a setback or where things didn’t really go that well for us in session,” Austin says. “Being that vulnerable with students can really help [them] understand that it is possible to fail and still create meaningful, powerful relationships with clients.”
Austin also strives for vulnerability with clients by using the inside-out technique, which means sharing whatever he is feeling on the inside with the client. So, if he makes a mistake in session, such as missing a feeling word or not being as attentive as he should be, he directly addresses that as soon as he realizes it. For example, he may say, “I’m feeling like I missed something in your experience, and I feel like we should retrace our steps.”
Jude Austin agrees that the inside-out technique is an effective way for counselors to handle missteps. For instance, he sometimes finds that couple sessions can quickly escalate into an arguing match and leave him feeling overwhelmed. When that happens, he verbalizes his own needs out loud: “I need you to stop talking for a few seconds. I feel lost, and I need 30 seconds to collect myself. And if I feel lost, I can’t imagine how lost you must feel.” This technique can give counselors the break they need to find a productive way to move forward.
“It takes a lot of courage to be vulnerable,” Vila says. Like lots of other counselors, she has had sessions where she later wished she had said or done something differently. When this happens, she is open with clients and says, “I’ve been thinking about what I said in the last session. It’s been bothering me. Has it been bothering you?”
Vila will also be upfront with clients if she is having an off day. For example, if her dog isn’t feeling well or if she is recovering from a head cold, she will apologize in advance if she isn’t 100 percent in session.
Lesson 6: Approach sessions with curiosity
One of the biggest mistakes clinicians can make related to multiculturalism is not approaching differences or even sameness with curiosity, Julius Austin says. He acknowledges that it would be easy for him to assume that an African American male client who is also a former student-athlete would share the exact same experiences as him, but the reality is that everyone’s experiences are unique, regardless of whether two people share certain similarities. “It’s really important to approach each person, each identity, with curiosity and childlike unknowingness and humility,” he says. “To understand somebody’s experience is giving yourself permission as a clinician to learn and be wrong.”
Jude Austin says he wishes he asked two simple questions more often to avoid potential awkward moments or miscommunications in session: “What’s your experience with me right now when you sit down and look at me?” and “Think about who you are as a person — your background, sexual orientation, race/ethnicity, etc. What’s something you want me to know about you so that I can build a better relationship with you?”
Lesson 7: Adopt positive habits
It’s easy for counselors to beat themselves up mentally for making mistakes, but they can adopt healthy habits to counter these missteps. Gladding often uses thought-stopping techniques such as focusing on the negative thought for a few minutes and then saying “Stop” quietly in his mind. Sometimes he will change the scenery (e.g., go outside) or exercise (e.g., go swimming) to help clear his mind. Gladding jokes that he should have gone for a walk with his client the day he fell asleep in session.
Ultimately, failure is about how a person internalizes an event, Thompson notes. If the person considers themselves (rather than the activity or technique) to be a failure, then they have to address their negative self-talk, she says. To help her monitor and manage her negative self-talk, Thompson started a morning routine in which she texts a friend about something she is grateful for — such as a beautiful day or the fact that her dog didn’t bark and wake her up that morning.
Vila also focuses on the positives by keeping a “one good thing about today” message board (a practice she adopted from a psychiatric hospital where she once worked). This involves writing down one positive thing that has happened to her that day. Sometimes it’s as simple as “a client thanked me” or “there wasn’t any traffic on my way to work,” and other times it’s something more notable, such as “I got a promotion.”
Vila says it may be difficult at first for counselors to find something positive to say about a bad day. In fact, she admits that on certain days, the only good thing may be that the day is over. “But as you start to look for more positives, you’re eventually going to have a hard time picking one thing to put on the board. You’re retraining [and] rewiring your brain to look more for the positive and to filter out and not focus on the negative as much,” she explains.
If counselors find things are not going well in session, Gladding advises them to take a few minutes to collect themselves before proceeding. They could excuse themselves from the session and quickly talk to a supervisor or colleague, or they could simply take a deep breath and look at their notes to gain fresh perspective and identify new insights, he says.
Lesson 8: Take risks
Counselors may avoid taking risks out of a fear of making mistakes or failing, and often for good reason. In 2001, Thompson, who offers training in supervision as well as complementary and integrative therapies to professional counselors, left a good job to start her own private practice. Shortly after taking this career risk, she went through a separation and divorce. She admits that during this time, she could have felt like a failure (and in some ways she did), but she decided to focus on how she could use the experience to learn and grow. So, while slowly building up her practice, she devoted an hour a day to learning a new counseling technique — EFT tapping — which is now the main counseling approach that she uses in her practice.
A few years later, Thompson suffered another loss when a miscommunication caused her to lose a close friend. But again, she ultimately turned the situation into an opportunity. While using counseling tools to cope with her loss, she realized she had collected and learned a stockpile of such tools throughout her career. She decided to write them all down. Within a few days, she had compiled a list of 75-80 tools and descriptions. The list eventually evolved into a deck of cards, dubbed the Toolkit for Transformation, that provides other counselors with practical tools and strategies for helping clients and themselves when they experience setbacks.
Missteps in session can also become information that assists counselors in better understanding how to help their clients. Thompson once forgot she had reduced a fee for one of her clients, so she accidentally overcharged the client for a month. The client caught the error and mentioned it awkwardly in her next session with Thompson. The client’s worried face instantly changed to relief when Thompson apologized and said she would deduct the overpaid amount from that session. This information prompted Thompson to ask about money in the client’s life, and she discovered that the client had money issues that had not been brought up before in session.
“Our biggest struggles are also our greatest opportunities for learning and growth. Those biggest struggles — especially when they’re bringing us to our knees — also bring our life lessons,” Thompson says. “We really don’t learn when we are in our comfort zone.”
Lesson 9: Become friends with failure
Making mistakes over the course of a counseling career is — in one word — inevitable. “You fail almost every five minutes as a therapist in session. There’s always some small failure,” Jude Austin says.
Counselors will not always say the right thing or be “perfect” in every session. As Gladding notes, perfection is not a human quality, so counselors will most assuredly make mistakes. The important part, he says, is that they learn from these mistakes. In fact, Gladding points out that self-doubt can be a strength in counseling because it helps counselors reflect more deeply on their role and be more attuned with clients who are vulnerable and having a difficult time.
Austin’s misstep with the client in an abusive relationship stuck with him and ultimately forced him to contemplate his identity and purpose as a counselor. “One way to handle failure is to figure out what you’re doing,” he says. The experience taught him that he wasn’t there to “save” clients but rather to help guide them through difficult situations and give them tools to help them help themselves.
The experience (and other missteps that have followed since) also taught him that he can’t avoid failure. “Failure is a part of our experience,” he says. “You have to build a relationship with failure. Make it your best friend [as a supervisor once told him]. Get to know what it feels like. Get to know how it affects your family and relationships … because the more awareness you have of your failures and who you are when you fail and how you react when you fail, the more freedom it gives you” to be more genuine with your clients about those failures.
Like any relationship, therapy will feature its fair share of missteps and miscommunications, and that can leave counselors feeling like failures. But, remember, you are not alone in this feeling. By adopting a growth mindset, you can learn from your mistakes and continue growing as a counselor.
So, go ahead and fail. You never know what you’ll learn from it.
Letters to the editor: firstname.lastname@example.org
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.