Jeff Guenther on Jun 28, 2021
I have been a therapist since 2005. And if I do say so myself, I think I’m pretty good. I have a solid rapport with all my clients. I see growth with all of them. Well, almost all of them. They give me good feedback on my counseling skills. It feels like there is a lot of trust built up between me and them. All in all, I feel like a very competent therapist. I enjoy what I do and I love to keep learning. However, I have made some truly boneheaded mistakes. And unfortunately I can’t blame them all on being a young therapist at the start of my career. Some of these mistakes I have made recently. So in the effort to be transparent and vulnerable in these blogs, I present to you 12 mistakes I have made with clients that I wish I could take back. Please don’t judge me harshly. But if you do, please don’t tell me. Hopefully the mistakes I have made can be lessons for others so that they don’t have to go through making the mistake like I did. In no particular order, I present to you my dumbest therapist blunders.
I know, I know! Therapists aren’t supposed to give advice and I promise you I do my best to stay away from falling into the advice giving trap. But sometimes it’s just so tempting, isn’t it? Like when a client is specifically asking for it and the solution seems so incredibly obvious. This one time a client was asking me my honest opinion on whether or not they should break up with their partner. I had been seeing this client for quite a while and this was maybe the 20th time they’d asked me. The first 19 times I was able to process the question appropriately and give it back to them to decide. Simply processing the question worked in that I was never on the hook for telling them to break up. But it also felt like I was letting them down. It seemed like they were looking for permission from me to end the relationship that, in my opinion, was not serving either partners needs and had turned toxic. So in a moment of weakness, sympathy and exasperation I finally answered their question with a “yes, you should break up with them.”
After I said yes to the break up, the client perked up and wanted to talk about how they could actually do it. Where it would happen, what they would say, how they would feel, yada yada yada. So I just dove in. We went over exactly what to do in order to end the relationship. I thought the session went really well. I didn’t actually think about it too much afterwards. Next week, the client came in and told me that they were proposed to and now they’re engaged. Well fuck. We had to spend weeks talking about that last session. I was really kicking myself for a while afterwards.
I love talking about what’s going on in the room. It might be my favorite thing about therapy. I feel like clients pay me money to make them feel awkward and I love it. It’s especially fun with couples. Commenting on the energy between two people getting into an argument while one of them is trying to get me to team up with them and prove the other person wrong is always a fun one to talk about. I live for uncomfortable moments like that.
But there was this one time where I was talking to a client and he was telling me about how he can’t keep friends. I challenged him a bit on what he might be doing to contribute to this problem and he got pretty upset. He puffed his chest out and became angry and all his defenses started to flare. I never really felt physically threatened. But I did feel like I wanted to change the subject and move on. Which I pretty much did. The rest of the session I was trying to get myself to talk about what I felt in the room when I confronted him and that I imagine others felt the same when he became upset. And maybe that was the reason he wasn’t able to develop close friendships. But I just put it off and planned to start with it next week.
He never showed up again and I missed my chance. Ugh!
I know I’m not supposed to be a therapist over email. I understand why email should only be used for scheduling. But when a client emailed me a novel about a current relationship he was struggling with, I felt compelled to give some therapeutic feedback. I didn’t write a novel back. It was really just a brief paragraph about some thoughts I had that were related to the last session. Well as you can probably guess, that opened the flood gates even more and before I knew it I found myself counseling this guy over email three more times the next day. I wanted to stop and say we couldn’t do this, but then I felt like it would be bizarre if I just stopped giving therapy over email. The next session we talked about why it’s not okay for me to do it, but it was weird because I was doing it leading up to the session. That was dumb for me. And confusing for him.
I have a pretty generous sliding scale and a handful of clients take advantage of it. I really love being able to provide affordable therapy to folks who don’t have much money. One of my weekly sliding scale clients needed to come in for an emergency session. But she told me she didn’t have enough money to come in. I felt bad and I had some free time in the week so I told her to come in anyway. The session went well and she thanked me. I should have told her that it was just a one time thing that was only okay because it was an emergency. I just assumed she’d know that. But a couple months later, she asked for a free emergency session again for what didn’t really seem to urgent. I said okay, but then I had to have a really weird talk about how this can’t be a regular thing. That conversation sucked for me and was confusing for her. Ugh.
Have you ever taken on a client because a friend therapist referred them to you and you didn’t want to let your buddy down so you agreed even though you had a feeling it just wouldn’t be a good match? Because I have. I was referred a couple. They were married for about 25 years and they were about 30 years older than me. I typically see couples that are newly dating or just married. I like working with couples that are still very in love with each other and have fun fights. This couple clearly didn’t care very much about each other and it seemed like things were dormant for 20 years. I couldn’t connect with them and they were bored with me in session. It felt the longest first session of my life. They left and never came back. I was fine with that.
I went to work on a Monday. It was like any other Monday. But this Monday I wanted to get to the office a little early. On my way, I got a coffee and a yummy pastry from the coffee shop down the block. I strolled into the office at 9:40am with plenty of time before my first 10am client. I walked through the waiting room on the way to my office and then stopped dead in my tracks. There was someone in the waiting room that looked very familiar. I stared at them for what seemed like way to long. My mouth was full of pastry and the confusion on my face was obvious. I knew this person, but they shouldn’t be sitting in my waiting room. Then it sunk in. They were my afternoon client that needed to come in earlier today and I had totally forgotten. They were sitting there for 40 minutes and I had totally blanked on their session. They looked at me with an expression of sadness and anger. My stomach dropped. I said I was sorry and offered them other times that day. None would work. They had to just leave. I felt like the worst therapist ever. It has never happened again.
I didn’t agree to see them at the same time. And I didn’t really know how close they were at first. When I decided to see the friend of my current client, I told her that it wasn’t a good idea for me to see her if she wanted to regularly talk about her in session. She had never really talked about her friend in the past and said it would be fine. I talked to the friend that came in and told her the same thing. She said she wasn’t coming in to talk about her. A couple months later they had a big fight and they couldn’t not talk about each other in therapy. I felt like they were triangulating me and it got real weird. I was able to navigate myself through it with proper supervision, but I promised myself that wouldn’t ever happen again.
Sessions usually start off pretty chatty. Especially with my long-term clients. We usually take a few minutes to settle in and a lot of times the conversation is pretty light. This particular afternoon my client was coming back from a trip she had taken the previous week. She went to Chicago to visit her dad and go to a baseball game to see their favorite team the White Sox. I am a Cubs fan, their cross town rival, so of course I had to start the session razzing my client about the White Sox’ loss. It wasn’t odd for us to talk baseball. She sat down on the couch and I started to make fun of her team’s horrible performance. She let me go on for way too long. When I was done I asked her how her trip was. Her father suddenly died from a heart attack and she went the ball game alone. Ugh. I felt like the worst therapist ever.
I have the talk with new clients the first time I see them, reminding them that Portland can feel like a pretty small town sometimes and there is a good chance I’ll run into them. And when that happens I won’t acknowledge them at all and they may feel like I am snubbing them or being rude. They all understand and we move on. I ran into a client at the store not too long ago. I was shopping for food like I do every Sunday. I saw her walking down the aisle towards me. I instantly registered her face as a person I know and like. So without hesitation I said, “Hey you!” And then I quickly realized she was a client. Her partner was trailing behind her and luckily didn’t notice my enthusiastic greeting. She was the one ignored me and just kept walking forward. She got a good apology from me when we processed the run in at our next session. I still have no idea why I jumped at the opportunity to say hello. Bizarre.
I’ve gotta say, I’m pretty good with the metaphors. Like all therapists, whether we like it or not, our metaphor game needs to be on point. It’s such a useful tool when talking to a client. I prefer a good baseball metaphor, but I’m not picky. But this one time when I was deep into talking about how the hitter needs to be able to step up to the plate and be confident in his ability, while at the same time having to embrace uncertainty about the pitch that will be thrown, knowing full well that even if he puts his best swing on the ball he really has no control over whether the batted ball will make an out and end in a heartbreaking loss or be hit out of the park and win the world series, making him a hero forever. The client looked back at me with confusion and boredom on his face. It was like I was talking in a different language. Little did he know that I had perfectly summed up his life problems and he probably would have been cured if he would have just followed along with the metaphor. But hey, sometimes you swing and miss, am I right?
I have to admit, I’ve done this more than once. But it wasn’t until recently that a friend expressed how it feels impossible to get a therapist to give them a call back. He had called over ten therapists and not one of them had gotten back to him. Therapists not getting back to potential clients is unfortunately a very common thing. But when I saw how deflated and upset my friend was and that they decided to put finding a therapist on hold, I vowed to never not respond to a client inquiry again. I wish all therapists could make that pledge.
As some of you know, I am a believer in metaphysics and the power of intentional thought. However, the vast majority of my clients have absolutely no idea. And that’s fine with me. I typically only talk about my spiritual beliefs when I want to annoy my wife, who thinks it’s all a load of crap. But this one time a client came in and casually mentioned that he wished he could simply sit down, close his eyes, and manifest the perfect job opportunity. I sorta joked back and said that maybe he could do that if he was intentional enough with his thoughts. That peaked his interest and for the next 25 minutes I rambled on about how he could clearly ask the universe for what he wanted and then adjust his belief systems to allow the job opportunity to manifest in his reality. He stared back at me blankly and then I had to spend the next five sessions trying to gain back my credibility. He never did manifest his dream job and I think I know why ;)
So there you have it. All of my cringe worthy mistakes since becoming a therapist. Well, all the ones I am willing to admit. I’m sure I’ll make tons more. One of the things I am most thankful for is how forgiving and kind my clients are. They know that I am always trying my best and have their needs at the forefront. They also know that I am not perfect and I’ll stumble every now and then. My missteps are good teaching opportunities. And I hope you can see yours in the same way.
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Jeff Guenther, LPC, is a therapist in Portland, OR. He has been in private practice since 2005. Jeff is the creator and owner of Portland Therapy Center, a highly ranked therapist directory. Jeff, and his team, have launched a new progressive therapist directory, TherapyDen.