Failure is Inescapable

Therapists are bound not to be “perfect” in every session. After all, perfection isn’t a human quality, so clinicians will certainly make mistakes. Making mistakes over the course of a therapy career is — in one word — inevitable. But unless therapists learn to embrace their failures, they will remain snugly tucked inside their comfort zones, tip-toeing around their sessions — and feeling not quite alive.

The Wounds of Failure

Face it, failure is painful, disappointing, and demoralizing. But aside from these obvious emotional bruises, failure can impact us on an unconscious level as well, and leave deep psychological wounds. Recognizing these psychological injuries we sustain when we fail, and learning how to treat them will increase the likeliness of future success.

1. Failure Causes us to Seem Less Capable

Failure not only creates the perception that our goals are more difficult to reach, but we see ourselves as less capable of reaching them. While these are not empirically accurate assessments, nevertheless they are natural distortions that occur subconsciously.

2. Failure Undermines Motivation

Numerous studies have shown that the belief in success or failure directly impacts how much effort is invested in reaching a goal. Fearing that we are unlikely to succeed, causes us to subconsciously reduce the effort, and the result is often that self-fulfilling prophecy — failure.

3. Failure Constrains us from Thinking Outside the Box

Failure causes us to be more averse to risk. Consequently, it impairs our capacity to think more creatively, and discover solutions that are “outside the box.” This is because such solutions, by definition, entail more risk. But this dynamic is primarily unconscious, so we rarely recognize this impact on our thinking. Instead, we believe that there simply aren’t any other approaches or novel ideas to pursue.

4. Failure Causes Feelings of Helplessness

Over 50 years ago, psychologists Martin Seligman and Steve Maier gave participants a test, telling them that it was indicative of their intelligence, but it was not. In fact, the test was rigged in such a way that it was impossible to complete.

They found that, after the participants failed at the (rigged) test, they began to act helpless, to the degree that when they were given a similar test, one that was well within their capacities to both complete and succeed at, they failed it. The reason was that they felt too helpless to give it a real try. These psychologists concluded that failure often makes us feel helpless even though we are not.

Overcoming and Leveraging your Fear of Failure

1. Get Real

Julius Austin, a clinical therapist and coordinator of the Office of Substance Abuse and Recovery at Tulane University, points out that a common mistake many therapists make early in their careers is trying to be an “ideal” counselor rather than being themselves.

And he admits that he personally experienced this. From the first day he began his counseling program, he walked in with an idealized version of the future “Dr. Austin” — a professional counselor who doesn’t make mistakes, immediately identified a client’s emotions, and knew just 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.

2. Forgive Your Mistakes

Austin adds that “counselors have to be “forgiving of [their] mistakes, forgiving of [their] own thoughts and forgiving of [themselves].”

From the perspective of Jennie Vila, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) in Edison, New Jersey, “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.”

As we all know, that is often easier said than done. Vila suggests that a way to do this is by externalizing her problems or frustrations, asking herself, “If I had a client who came to me with this problem, what would I tell him/her?”

3. Let Go of Your Risk Aversion

It’s perfectly understandable that counselors avoid taking risks out of fear of failing. “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,” says Suzan Thompson, an LPC in private practice in Virginia Beach, Virginia. “We really don’t learn when we are in our comfort zone.”

4. This Client’s Loss is Another Client’s Gain

Sometimes, experiencing failure is in order to help so many others. While you will feel bad about making a mistake with a client, learn to be appreciative of the insight you will gain from this difficult experience. It may motivate you to seek supervision or do more research that will help you work more effectively with numerous other clients.

You will be on the road to greater success as a therapist when you experience your personal and professional uncertainties and many imperfections as opportunities rather than weaknesses. Recognize weaknesses of which you were previously unaware, and attempt to grow from that awareness.

5. Uncertainty Should be Embraced

Excellent therapy often involves novelty, and novelty precludes being completely prepared. The sense of not being completely prepared leaves therapists vulnerable to feelings of incompetence. But the quicker that therapists can accept and embrace uncertainty, the quicker they can help those who are suffering.

Therapists often equate uncertainty with incompetence, which potentially threatens professional self-esteem. But therapists need to realize that uncertainty is an occupational hazard of their work and, while it opens the door to potential failure, there are many potential benefits as well.

Making Failure Your Friend

As Austin put it, “Failure is a part of our experience. You have to build a relationship with failure. Make it your best friend, 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.” And the therapy will ultimately bear more fruit!