No matter how good you are at your job, there will be bad counseling days. Period. You can be the best counselor in your field- substance abuse, crisis, adolescents, etc.- and there will be days that none of your techniques work. There will be days where you say the wrong thing, days where you are tired, and days when your clients couldn’t care less.
Progress is an uphill battle. When a storm rolls in, you will be trudging through the mud- whatever it may represent- with your clients.
Just like the people on your caseload, you are not perfect. So, it’s impossible for you to be a perfect counselor. Even if you are a great counselor, your clients will still make bad choices. Bad counseling days happen, so here are some tips for dealing with them:
Reminders for bad counseling days
Sometimes, you say the wrong thing, push your client too hard to change, forgot about one of your client’s triggers, etc. It’s okay to make mistakes. I tell my clients all the time: you will make mistakes- own up to them, pay the price, do better. It’s hard to take your own advice. Once I yelled at one of my clients, I was trying to reason with her about the school’s rules, and she was just yelling. After a stressful week, I lost it and yelled back. When I realized that I had lost control, I called for a school administrator to stay with her and left the room. Thirty minutes later, I returned and apologized for yelling. I also called her mother and explained the situation. When my client realized that I would own up to my mistakes, it strengthened our therapeutic relationship.
It’s not your fault.
A few weeks ago, 5 of my 6 clients were given in-school suspension in a period of two days. When I was a substance abuse counseling intern, we had a week where 95% of the group relapsed in one week. When bad counseling days happen, it’s usually not one client who is not responding to treatment, but the majority of them relapsing instead of progressing. It would be so easy to blame myself for my client’s behavior, but that’s not what counseling is. A counselor provides clinical support and resources to people who need it, but your clients can choose to reject that support. I can provide positive reinforcement, identify triggers, and practice coping skills until I’m blue in the face, but my clients have the personal freedom to reject all of it.
Leave it at the door.
That week where my whole substance abuse group relapsed, my supervisor told me “don’t take this home with you. Leave it at the door.” Even when I don’t follow it, this advice has stayed with me for the last two years. As counselors, we sometimes blame ourselves for our client’s mistakes and then bring all those problems home and stew over what to do next. It used to break my heart when my kids would be suspended. Even though I didn’t blame myself for their actions, I hated that negative consequences that my clients faced.
However, most of our actions have consequences- good or bad. When my clients get in trouble, it’s important that they realize that no amount of begging will change anything. As I mentioned earlier- when my older clients get into trouble, I tell them: own up to your mistakes, pay the price, and make better choices to avoid this. During our next individual sessions, we walk through the incident and discuss triggers that could have been avoided. Some of my co-workers will pull their clients out of ISS for brief periods of time. I don’t. I will go check-in with them a couple of times throughout the day, but I will not take them out of the room. It’s not fair to the other kids. It also reinforces to my clients that my job is to give them tools to stay out of trouble, not to get them out of trouble.
It’s okay to fall apart.
You probably became a counselor because you want to help people. I did. However, there’s a massive amount a pressure in the counseling field, and there will be days you cave. I’ve lost track of the number of times that I have broken down crying over something at work. Sometimes, you believe in your clients more than they believe in themselves. Sometimes, you’re clients are really nasty to you and have figured out some of your insecurities (middle school girls love to go for your appearance). That’s why it’s important to:
Engage in self-care.
Counseling is draining sometimes. When your clients are working towards their treatment goals, your job seems so rewarding. On the days they’ve given up, you may question your profession and feel mentally exhausted by the end of the day. Make sure to engage in self-care on a regular basis. When the weekend came after ISS week, I splurged with Chinese food for dinner and went with a friend to the local beach the next day. (Here’s my post on developing self-care routine.)
Research new treatment options.
Sometimes, all your treatment techniques seem to be failing. With some clients, it will take time for your clients to work with you, so don’t give up too easily. However, I use Pinterest all the time for group activities, sensory techniques, or classroom management ideas(You can follow my counseling board here or follow me at Unseen Footprints to see any counseling resources that I find and share.). Never think that you know everything.
You may not see any change.
This is the hardest part of being a counselor. You think that if you keep working with a client, eventually he/she will come around. It doesn’t always happen. Again, your clients have free will. Most of my clients are mandated clients- meaning they are ordered to work with me. People who have been ordered to change usually are less likely to want to change.
You will also have clients that you only work with for a set period of time. Off the top of my head, I’ve had three clients who have met their goals and been discharged working with other therapists, but when I worked with them, I saw minimal change. Sometimes, counseling takes a while. Celebrate that success with your co-workers, even if you didn’t get to see it first hand. I’m still a part of their journey, even if I didn’t get the satisfaction of writing the discharge summary.
Tomorrow is a new day.
A bad day only lasts 24 hours. On those bad counseling days, it may not seem that way, but they do end. When my clients get in trouble, they tend to blame me, cuss me out, scream, walk away, etc. However, I let each of them know that they can’t scare me away.
I once asked a client “why do you like me?” He said “because you’re nice.” When I asked him “what’s nice about me?”, he shrugged and couldn’t answer, but I knew the answer. I told him: “You like me, because no matter how mean you are to me, I’m always here with a smile on my face the next day-ready to work with you. I believe in you, and I know you can do better. You’ve made a lot of people angry, but you like me because you know that I’m not giving up.” My tough, ADHD, ODD client who always has something to say just nodded.
Most of your clients will have burned a lot of bridges, so it’s important to realize how important your clinical support is in your clients’ lives. Person-centered therapy relies on unconditional positive regard. On those bad counseling days, make sure to think of the positive qualities of your clients.
Have any other tips for bad counseling days? Share them in the comments!