We all make mistakes. But oftentimes, it’s the mistakes that help us grow the most, personally and professionally. Here, three therapists share their stories about the learning experiences, recalibrations, and “happy accidents” that helped make them the knowledgeable, capable clinicians they are today.
1) Embracing a Surprise Gift
In March 2020, I transitioned suddenly, like so many of us, to seeing clients entirely online. I set up shop in a spare bedroom in the house and got to work. With three children also unexpectedly housebound, my husband took on the additional job of running interference to keep my not-at-all-quiet kids from disrupting my sessions.
One afternoon, he set out with them on a long hike. I relished the idea of working from an empty house—so much, in fact, that I neglected to fully close the bedroom door. Fifteen minutes into a session, my 80-pound rescue mutt, Buster, was overjoyed to make his presence known.
I was horrified. Despite attempting to ignore him and then nudge him away, he was enthusiastically sniffing me within microseconds. I willed him to just lay on the carpet, desperate to keep the focus on my client. But the jig was up. Buster’s snout was front and center in frame. I was flustered and embarrassed, and apologized profusely. I immediately worried about how this intrusion would play out, regretting that I’d let my personal surroundings disrupt my client’s train of thought, taking us out of the moment.
But my client’s face lit up. “You have a dog?” she cooed. Typically very cautious with self-disclosure, I felt uneasy. “Let’s see him!” she bellowed, as if it had been a great injustice that I hadn’t already adjusted my camera to give Buster his full due. As anxious as I was getting, it was like a wall had cracked open in my client. Her face and shoulders relaxed, and she broke into a grin I hadn’t seen in weeks.
She obviously loved dogs, and asked if she could bring in her own. Now I was kicking myself not about Buster, but because I’d never thought to ask her about this clearly important part of her life. Normally an anxious person, I saw her soften and relax even further when her own pooch arrived. And the way she petted and spoke to him revealed a glimpse of what nurturing—and being nurtured—looked like in her. It turned out having her dog in on our virtual sessions reduced her physical anxiety enough for her to truly open up. I was also able to honor their relationship in a more deliberate, mindful way, to teach her to use that relationship as a coping skill when she became anxious. This wonderful tool had been there all along. It just took my mistake of leaving a door ajar to realize it.
Andrea Bonior, PhD
2) The Importance of Taking Time
I’ll never forget October 17, 2009. It was one of those life-changing days that stands out, even years later. It was the day my father died, unexpectedly, from cardiac arrest. The first day of a long journey through loss and grief.
I took the customary time off work. A week for relatives to come and go, time for the visitation and funeral—although it seemed like no time at all. When I returned to work, my attitude was to just keep going. After all, my dad had been a “doer.” He would’ve supported me getting back to work, I thought. Besides, my internal thinking went, what else was I supposed to do?
Before my father passed away, he and my mother had planned a trip Thanksgiving weekend to see my sister and help paint her new home. So I did what needed to be done. I decided I’d take my dad’s place and help paint instead.
You know those moments where you look back on an experience with a client and cringe because of something you said in session when you weren’t at your best? A few days before leaving for my sister's, I had one of those moments with a family I’d just begun working with. As I sat down with them for our session, my mind was elsewhere. As the parents were talking fervently about their child’s school performance, I couldn’t stop thinking about the trip, about how much this Thanksgiving would look different without my dad around. When the parents said they wanted my help advocating for their child’s unique needs, I blurted out, “Well, you can’t change the school." I remember the look on their faces. I knew then that I hadn’t been meeting their needs. Whether I could or couldn’t have intervened in their son’s school matters, I’d said what I’d said without much thought or therapeutic touch.
I learned to forgive myself. But sometimes still, I think about that moment, and I cringe. Today, I’d probably call the parents, give a brief explanation of what happened, and make an attempt at repair. As any good therapist knows, relationship building is key. Looking back now, I offer this lesson of self-care to therapists: You can’t know when grief will hit, but do your best when it does. And when the hard moments come, give yourself time to sit with them. It’s worth it when you do.
Christa Orfitelli, LISW
3) Don’t Overthink It!
For a long time, I was always terrified of making mistakes in therapy. I considered psychotherapy to be serious work, something I’d been entrusted with. But one experience taught me that worrying too much about makes mistakes is a mistake in itself. We all make mistakes. One client experience in particular taught me this, and it’s one I still think about to this day.
Years ago, when I was finishing my MSW degree, I’d been working as an intern at a counseling agency. One of the clients assigned to me was a very depressed young man with a history of suicidal ideation. When we began working together, I was very nervous. I wanted to do the absolute best I could, to help him overcome his depression as quickly as possible. Based on his presentation, I decided to use CBT, and, together, we developed a treatment plan.
There was just one problem. During our sessions, I was so concerned about making sure I was checking all the boxes on the treatment techniques that I’d trip myself up. Did we set appropriate goals? I wondered. Was the journaling homework I assigned appropriate? Was I using reframing techniques correctly? I wanted to make sure I was doing this right.
Several weeks into treatment, the young man came to our session in the middle of a very bad day, saying he was feeling really depressed. Due to his history of severe depression and suicidal thoughts, I worried that those suicidal thoughts might be coming back. But I was unsure where to begin. What techniques should I use now? I wondered.
But that moment demanded something else of me. I didn’t have time to come up with the perfect intervention. I simply needed to be present with the young man, to stop worrying about this and that technique. In that moment, I sat up straight, leaned forward to listen, and set my notepad and worried thoughts aside. The young man just needed me to be there and be validating. And so I was.
For whatever reason, after that session, the young man told me he’d realized things about his situation that he hadn’t before. We turned a corner that day, and our working relationship took off. When our time together came to an end with my upcoming graduation, he wrote me a thank you card telling me how important our time together had been to him.
This experience taught me that one of the most valuable things we therapists can do is be present, set aside as much of our internal worrying as we can, and just listen. We’re more skilled than we give ourselves credit for. Sometimes, worrying about making mistakes causes us to forget the most basic tenets of good therapy.
Katrina Ferrales, LCSW
Las Cruces, NM
Photo © iStock/Ivan Bajic
Topic: Professional Development