No one likes to admit that they’ve made a mistake. But mistakes happen. As long as you learn from them and take steps to improve processes going forward, it shouldn’t be life-altering. This rule is especially true of newer therapists who simply don’t have the experience of therapists further along in their careers.
While everyone makes mistakes, it’s best to avoid the ones you can. That means having knowledge of common errors counselors are prone to and intentionally avoiding them.
In today’s post, we run through common mistakes and issues therapists make and we’ll provide insight to help you avoid them.
Inadequate Preparation for Appointments
Chances are, you see a lot of different clients each week, all with varying concerns and diagnoses. Preparing for each client before their appointment is crucial to keep things running smoothly and give them the best possible care. Preparation may include reading client notes, developing a plan for the session, and setting clear treatment goals for that client.
Why it’s a Mistake: Not preparing before an appointment means you’ll likely miss important things. Whether that be trends in client behavior or simply having a session without structure, things can begin to fall apart quickly. This lack of preparation can lead to poorer outcomes for your clients.
An Example: You ran out of time to read the client’s file before their appointment. Now you’re stuck trying to remember what happened in their last appointment and understand how what they’re telling you now relates. Not reading their file also means you won’t have a structure in mind for your time together, which can lead to an unproductive session.
How to Avoid it: Always take the time to prepare for appointments. Whether that means taking on fewer clients or scheduling a break between each client so that you can read files, write up your notes, or just run over the plan for the next session, having this time is essential.
Focusing Too Much on Theory
Theories are principles that help you ensure that your sessions are structured, evidence-based, and effectively address clients’ unique needs and challenges. But therapy isn’t one-size-fits-all. Theories can be useful for therapists, but it’s crucial not to rely on them too much or to get stuck on one particular theory.
Why it’s a Mistake: If people were all the same, theories might work 100% of the time. But everyone is different. Theories are just that — theories. While they’re essential in guiding therapy, overreliance on theories can lead to inflexibility. Clients may feel misunderstood or unsupported if you can’t be flexible. They may also feel disconnected from the therapy process, and you may not address their specific needs or concerns.
An Example: You may spend too much time discussing the theoretical foundation of a concept without exploring how it applies (or doesn’t) to your client’s situation. You may also discuss treatment theories or approaches without providing actionable steps for your client to try.
How to Avoid it: Remember that each client is different and requires a balance of theoretical approaches and practical application. Be sure to provide comprehensive care by drawing on multiple theories where applicable.
Failing to be Objective
Objectivity is the ability to set aside bias, judgment, or prejudice when looking at a situation. Therapists must be objective and not “take sides” or let their emotions or personal feelings influence how they treat their clients.
Why it’s a Mistake: If you allow therapy to become subjective, you may make inaccurate assessments and recommend ineffective treatments.
An Example: You may have a “no drugs” policy in your life. But, your client uses drugs to cope with their situation. By making them feel like what they are doing is “wrong,” as per your personal beliefs, you may alienate your client, which can halt progress.
How to Avoid it: Stay open-minded, and avoid making assumptions or projecting your beliefs onto clients. Speak to supervisors or seek guidance from peers to ensure you stay objective.
Talking About Yourself or Projecting
As a therapist, you may have had similar experiences to some of your clients. Discussing your personal life with them to build rapport can be tempting.
Why it’s a Mistake: While sharing some personal anecdotes can be harmless and even benefit the client-therapist relationship, you need to draw a line between information that is appropriate to share and what may not be appropriate. You also need to ensure that the client is the focus of their sessions and that you don’t spend too much time talking about yourself. Projecting is when you apply your own feelings to your clients’ situations. While you may have felt a certain way in the same situation, you need to remember that everyone is different, and they may not feel the same way you did.
An Example: Your client says she just lost her cat, and it’s been really difficult for her. You dislike cats immensely, so you suggest that maybe she should get another cat or even a dog, then you move on with the session without discussing her feelings.
How to Avoid it: Always maintain clear professional boundaries and avoid sharing personal information irrelevant to the therapy process. Be careful what information you share, even if you feel that it is relevant. Also, be mindful of your reactions and manage them in a way that benefits the client.
Misunderstanding the Client’s Point of View
Understanding your clients’ points of view is essential to tailoring your care to each client as an individual. When you understand your client’s perspectives, you can empathize with their emotions, validate their experiences, and present relevant insights and intervention recommendations.
Why it’s a Mistake: If you can’t validate a client’s experience, they’re unlikely to progress well in therapy. If you don’t understand their perspective, you may misunderstand their goals for treatment, and your treatment plan may not align with their expectations.
An Example: A client says they’re trying a new fad diet, and it’s making them feel a lot more positive. You immediately launch into how bad fad diets and diet culture are. Now the client doesn’t trust you to share their positive results or the benefits of their new way of eating.
How to Avoid it: You should use active listening techniques, such as restating what they’ve just said and summarizing what the client has shared, to ensure you’ve fully understood their point of view.
Inadequately Assessing or Attempting Premature Overinterpretation
Before interpreting or making assumptions about your clients’ behaviors or emotions, you should take the time to understand them fully.
Why it’s a Mistake: If you jump to conclusions, you may make inaccurate assessments and risk harm to your client’s progress. Not digging deeper could make your client feel misunderstood, especially if they vehemently disagree with your assessment.
An Example: A client comes to you with anger issues. You find out that his ex-girlfriend cheated on him with his best friend and assume this is where the anger issues stem from. You don’t explore any further reason, and you miss that his father also had anger issues and took them out on him as a child.
How to Avoid it: Make sure you always take the time to fully understand your client’s experiences and needs before making interpretations or assumptions. Ask open-ended questions to allow them to expand before you provide your assessment.
Not Establishing Clear Treatment Goals
Treatment goals are crucial for helping you plan the focus and direction of each session, ensuring that you’re always working toward something specific.
Why it’s a Mistake: Without clear treatment goals, it can be challenging for you and the client to track their progress and evaluate how effective therapy is.
An Example: You dive straight into therapy without determining what the client’s aims and expectations are for therapy. You end up providing guidance and support that isn’t aligned with what they wanted help with.
How to Avoid it: Always work collaboratively with your clients to identify their goals and priorities. Carve out time at the start of your meetings with a new client to discuss their reasons for wanting therapy, explore any concerns or challenges they may have, and identify specific areas they want to focus on.
Lacking Awareness of Power Dynamics
Your client has come to you because you’re the expert. This expertise brings a power dynamic you may forget, especially as a new therapist. It’s your job to use this power responsibly and ethically.
Why it’s a Mistake: Forgetting that you are inherently in a position of power can lead to you making decisions for your clients without considering their input. This approach can lead to them feeling frustrated, and they may also end up relying on you to make their decisions instead of being empowered to make their own choices.
An Example: Instead of gently encouraging your client to move forward in a way that is based on their desires and needs, you tell them what they should do in a certain situation. This approach makes them feel frustrated and unheard of and ultimately leads to poor patient outcomes for the therapy.
How to Avoid it: Always work collaboratively with your clients, ensuring they are active participants in their therapy. That could be as simple as involving them in the desired outcomes from therapy. By considering their needs and goals and remembering that you are a facilitator for their treatment rather than someone who inherently knows everything, you can create a safe and empowering environment to support your clients through their journey.
Neglecting Professional Boundaries
Professional boundaries should be established and maintained to treat you and your clients with respect and dignity.
Why it’s a Mistake: If you don’t set and maintain professional boundaries, it can lead to a blurring of the therapist-client relationship.
An Example: You accept your client’s request to become Facebook friends. Then your client begins DMing you and asking for advice between sessions. Instead of addressing the mistake head-on, you start avoiding the client.
How to Avoid it: You should establish clear professional boundaries with clients and avoid becoming overly involved in their personal lives. Consider making it a policy that if you see them in a public place, you don’t acknowledge them. This allows the relationship to remain professional and in the context of your office only. It also means that if they are with someone who does not know they see a therapist, you don’t open up difficult conversations about how you know them.
Overlooking Cultural Differences
It’s likely that at some point during your career as a therapist, you’ll encounter clients who have a different cultural background from yourself. You need to make sure that you consider these differences when treating them.
Why it’s a Mistake: Overlooking cultural differences can lead to misunderstandings, misinterpretations, and a lack of trust between you and your client. Clients may feel that their cultural experiences are being ignored or minimized, leading to a lack of progress in therapy.
An Example: You talk about Christmas and ask your client what she and her family are doing, not realizing she’s Jewish and celebrates Hanukkah, making your conversation isolating.
How to Avoid it: Prioritize cultural competence and attend cultural sensitivity training. Be aware of your own ingrained beliefs and values and learn the values, attitudes, and beliefs of people from other cultures. By creating a safe space for people to share their experiences and unique cultural perspectives, you can provide effective and inclusive care for people of all backgrounds.
Missing Nonverbal Cues
Nonverbal cues are almost as important as verbal ones. Nonverbal cues can include facial expressions, body language, tone of voice, eye contact, and gestures. These need to be taken into account just as much as what your clients say out loud.
Why it’s a Mistake: Therapy isn’t always going to be comfortable for your clients, but there’s a limit to how far you should push them out of their comfort zones. By missing nonverbal cues, you may cause clients to feel excessively uncomfortable, which can hinder the progress of therapy and, in some cases, halt it entirely.
An Example: Your client is getting increasingly uncomfortable and about to cry while discussing their relationship with their father. They keep trying to change the subject, but you feel like the topic is important and keep trying to focus the conversation there.
How to Avoid it: You should always be mindful of nonverbal cues and work to create a safe and comfortable environment for clients to express themselves. Giving clients the ability to express themselves through various means allows them to communicate with you in ways that aren’t just verbal. It gives you a deeper understanding of your clients’ needs and builds the client-therapist relationship.
Failing to Monitor the Quality of the Therapeutic Relationship
The therapeutic relationship is the basis for successful therapy. You have to foster a space for open communication where your clients trust you so they are open and honest and can get the most out of your appointments with them.
Why it’s a Mistake: If your client doesn’t trust you, they’re less likely to be active participants in their therapy and healing. They may not be able to be as open with you, and by holding back, they won’t get the best benefit from therapy.
An Example: Your client asks for a diagnosis, but you tell them that putting a label on their concerns isn’t important. You move on in the session without realizing your client needs greater understanding and wonders if you even know why they’re in therapy.
How to Avoid it: Always make opportunities for feedback from your clients. Be open to any feedback your clients may have and any constructive criticism that can help make the therapeutic relationship better. Regularly check in with your clients to ensure they feel heard and supported, and adjust your approach to their therapy sessions if needed.
Documentation is essential for a therapist. From intake forms to making notes on treatment progress, you need to make sure you document everything.
Why it’s a Mistake: If you don’t keep detailed notes, you could simply forget things. In your practice, you likely see a lot of different clients, some of whom may have overlaps in their treatment and progress. If you don’t document everything, you may accidentally confuse two clients. Additionally, if something happens with a client and you haven’t documented everything carefully, it could open you up to lawsuits.
An Example: You forgot to take notes in your last session to remind you that your client’s terminally ill mother died. You start the next session by asking how she’s doing with the new tools for coping with her mother’s illness.
How to Avoid it: Take notes during each session to stay organized and keep track of important details. Spend time after the session writing them up so you can easily access them going forward. These notes can help guide future sessions and ensure you stay on track toward your clients’ treatment goals. Adequate documentation also provides evidence of the quality of care you’ve been providing. Additionally, it allows you a snapshot of any trends that could cause concern.
Not Paying Attention to Self-Care
Self-care is an essential part of being a therapist. Self-care involves activities that care for your physical, emotional, and mental health. It includes exercise, relaxation techniques, healthy eating habits, and getting enough sleep.
Why it’s a Mistake: Not paying attention to self-care means putting yourself at risk of burnout. It can also lead to increased stress levels and a lack of focus. It can affect the quality of therapy you provide.
An Example: An example is focusing solely on your clients and forgetting to take time for yourself or even eat lunch. Overloading your day with client after client and not taking breaks means you may not be as focused on your clients as you want. It can lead to “spacing out” during sessions or even confusing yourself between clients, leading to poorer patient outcomes.
How to Avoid it: For therapists, as well as the above examples, self-care also includes setting client boundaries and taking breaks from work when needed. Practicing self-care regularly ensures you’re in the right frame of mind to deliver excellent care to your clients.
Not Keeping Up with the Latest Research
Research in the field of mental health is an ongoing endeavor. New treatment modalities and conditions are always being looked into to determine the best and most up-to-date methods for treating clients.
Why it’s a Mistake: Without knowing the latest research and treatment methods innovations, you run the risk of using outdated or ineffective treatment plans. This can lead to the treatment not working or, in some cases, making things worse for your client.
An Example: As research in mental health is constant, and the field is ever-changing and evolving, it can be easy to miss a new development. Whether that be a new medication approved for a condition or something as simple as evidence suggesting that a treatment modality is less effective at treating a certain condition, you could end up missing something important that could benefit your client.
How to Avoid it: By ensuring that you prioritize your continued professional development, attend conferences and events, and generally stay up to date with the latest research and developments in your field, you can be sure that you’re providing the best and most up-to-date care for your clients.
Openness is Key
There are many different mistakes that you could make throughout your career as you develop from a new therapist to an experienced one. Learn from your mistakes, address them openly, and move forward. Hold yourself accountable and own your mistakes. Embrace mistakes as opportunities for growth and reflection and put things in place to prevent them from happening again.
Being aware of the most common errors for beginning counselors means you can ensure you don’t make them yourself.
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