Tag Archives: mistakes

Counselor failures: A short series

I recently passed my 29th year anniversary of mental health practice and 18th year as a psychologist. I’m not quite old but also have a few years under my belt. When I first began counseling as a counselor in my very early twenties I was fairly committed to proving my value. I wanted to diagnose problems and offer wise solutions. I’m embarrassed to say that I often thought I could do so in the first 15 minutes of a session. Sometimes I was right, but I can say for sure I hadn’t earned the right to speak. Needless to say, I wasn’t particularly helpful in those early sessions. Thankfully, I learned that if I was going to be helpful I needed to stop worrying about whether I sounded smart and had something valuable to say and instead spend my energy entirely on the work of listening and understanding the person in front of me.

Not listening to clients might be the first and most common failure counselors make. It can happen throughout a session or for just thirty seconds during a momentary lapse of concentration. While beginner counselors may struggle to listen well, seasoned therapists can lose their edge without even recognizing it.

Not listening can happen by means of trying to dictate goals. It can happen when we therapists talk about ourselves. It can happen when we misdiagnose a client. It can happen when we are bored, or irritated, or caught up in our own world of pain.

This little series is dedicated to therapist failures. We’d rather believe that our mistakes are really client resistance or family interference. But as we own our mistakes, we acknowledge that counseling is a human interaction that requires our willingness to evaluate our end of that interaction. While this series is written for mental health practitioners, I suspect clients will also benefit from this look inside, if for no other reason than to identify when they are not feeling heard.

Some related thoughts previously written

I’ve written a couple of blogs recently on related topics. The first is embedded in my last blog,

I’m going to skip over the large problem of counselors pressing for any change whatsoever. (Suffice it to say that pressing a client for forgiveness, confession, reconciliation, or any other action rarely works and more often causes harm. You cannot heal a trauma caused by misuse of power with more force–even if your goal is good.)


I will write more on the problem of choosing the wrong goals for counselees–or the problem of choosing goals in the first place. A few months ago I wrote about the problem of choosing reconciliation as a goal.

Some years ago, I wrote this list of common mistakes made by novice counselors.

Come back for the first post exploring the setting of goals in counseling and how not listening leads to the likelihood of failure.

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Filed under biblical counseling, christian counseling, counseling, counseling skills, Psychology

Painting in your good clothes and other self-deceptions

“Hi, I’m Phil and I have a confession to make: I paint in my good clothes.”

I live in a one hundred year old house where plaster walls crumble and where 2 active boys do things that cause the woodwork and doors to chip. So, routinely, I need to break out the paint and touch up holes and chips. This weekend, I needed to fix an area (approximately 1.5 feet by 3 feet) of plaster. Once the plaster was repaired, I needed to paint. I went to the basement, found a dropcloth (something I don’t always use), a brush, a stirrer, a screwdriver, and the paint and was soon back upstairs with brush in hand ready to paint. Within a few minutes, I was done the job.

Leaning back and admiring my work, I looked down and caught a glimpse of a few paint specks on my jeans. Looking a bit more, I found a smudge of paint on my pull-over–the good one I wear to work. Painting in my good clothes? What was I thinking to do something so foolish?

Some things ought to be obvious. Don’t poke a hornets’ next. Don’t drink and drive? Don’t air your dirty laundry on Facebook for all to see. Don’t take racy pictures of your self on your smart phone. And, don’t paint in your good clothes.

Funny thing, we do lots of things that we really know we ought not to do. But even more funnier…we do these things again even after prior epic fails. In essence, we don’t learn from our mistakes.  

Why is this the case? Why do we fail to grasp the obvious in the midst of our decisions? Why does our common sense fail us when 2 seconds of thinking will enable us to predict what will and what won’t turn out well. We overeat and gain weight. We gossip and ruin relationships. We cover up failures with lies and lose trust. We cheat and suffer with silent guilt and shame. We paint in our good clothes and ruin them.

Here’s a couple of reasons why we do these things:

1. We lie to ourselves. We tell ourselves we have it all under control. We won’t make any mistakes. We’ll be careful. No one will know.

2. We cut corners to get the things we want. We want satisfaction now so we post on Facebook what we are feeling without considering the consequences. We want to finish painting so we can do something more pleasurable and so we don’t change clothes.

3. We fail to identify the core problem after we’ve made a mistake. The main reason we don’t seem to learn well from our past mistakes is that we often only regret the outcome rather than come to grips with the source of our impulsive behavior.

I feel badly that I got paint on my pullover. But, do I understand that the reason I did so is because I have a habit of trying to complete tasks as quickly as possible–laziness–rather than a habit of doing a job the right way.


Filed under christian psychology, Christianity, counseling, Psychology, Uncategorized