Important Lessons I’ve Learned Along the Way from Clients

We all face challenges in today’s increasingly complex and demanding world.

The world requires we evolve or fall behind.

Counseling is a journey of personal growth and development. It can help us in every aspect of our lives. Our goals as clinicians are to enable clients with the necessary skills to do this work on their own. The skills we teach are important for managing our emotions and day to day life–educating clients on various coping strategies or how to recognize common cognitive distortions in their self-talk. Clients learn how to set reasonable and appropriate boundaries in trying relationships. Others learn to cope with painful emotions and emotionally regulate. Some clients discover how to accept themselves or to accept other people in their lives as they are, i.e. how to manage their expectations of self and others. Yet the truth is counseling is a learning experience on both sides of the equation as clinicians also learn from their clients.

One of things I value the most about working in this profession is the great privilege and honor to be in the position to reap wisdom from my clients. Over the years, the work I have done with people from all walks of life, has led me to grow, both personally and professionally. Learning from the experiences of others is inherently valuable. Being able to listen to people’s deepest thoughts and hear their most vulnerable feelings leads one to the understanding that we all share many more commonalities than differences.

Below are a few lessons I’ve learned over the years — lessons that’ve influenced how they I approach my role as a counselor.

Prioritize Your Mental Health Just as Much as Your Physical Health

Our mental health impacts every aspect of our lives. We often think of our body and mind as separate but they are interconnected. Physical health problems significantly increase our risk of developing mental health problems, and vice versa. Our mind is very powerful. It literally has the power to control how we feel, act, and behave. Sometimes we have habits that contribute to our own suffering. Counseling can bring awareness to how we contribute to our problems and how to change. The fact is our mental health impacts everything we hold dear– from our relationships with family and friends, to our careers, to our physical well-being, to how we show up for ourselves & others in day to day life.

The story you tell yourself impacts how you feel about your life.

Our self-talk is pivotal to the quality of our lives. A client can be functioning fairly well, but if they aren’t inspired by their job and feel disconnected from the people in their life, they can feel depressed. How one assigns meaning to different aspects of their life will have a profound impact on how they feel. We must be mindful of the stories we tell ourselves about our lives and the people in them.

Clients do well when they want to.

I can’t change a client. I am not there to “fix” a person who is seeking out counseling. I am the facilitator of growth and change but it is up to the client to take ownership of their own life.

This experience taught me two lessons: I shouldn’t be working harder than my clients; and there’s only so much I, and anyone else, can do to help another person.

Ultimately, it’s up to them whether they choose to be well or not.

Life is a gift.

Having counseled countless clients through grief and loss, one blessing of this work is the awareness of the preciousness of time. I also realize far too often we are left with unfinished business when people in our lives pass. Far too often we get caught up in the petty minutiae of day-to-day life and fail to see the big picture. Don’t sweat the small stuff.

Staying Anchored in the Present is Important to Good Mental Health

Many clients struggle to stay in the present moment. It is a struggle I have experienced as well. We as a species tend to ruminate over the past or project ourselves into unknown future and fret over it. Hence why so many people suffer from anxiety or depressive disorders.

I realize now that it is as if in life, the needle sets on a record album the moment we are born and continues to cycle as we live. If we bring our awareness to the past or to the future, we scratch our record and there is no music. If we stay in the present moment, we hear the beauty of our song.

Because I have seen clients go through many tragedies, I try to live every day with a sense of wonder and appreciation. Some days it is easier than others. Therein lies the truth.

Life is full of uncertainty, and offers no promises, so live each day without a sense of entitlement, treating it as a precious gift.

You can’t change anyone.

I am reminded of this lesson every day in my work and in my life: You can make a lifetime project of trying to change someone, but until they decide they want to change, your efforts will be futile. The only person you can change is yourself. That’s why I focus on “being the change that I seek.”

Perhaps this means ending an unhealthy relationship. Maybe it means changing the role that person has in your life. Or it can mean reframing how you view the other and the relationship as a whole. There are no black and white answers to nuance, complicated relationships. Sometimes we have to accept there are no ideal answers yet we are challenged to make the best of it.

Connection is key with clients.

The therapeutic relationship is paramount. I have learned the importance of understanding, compassion and connection for working with his clients.

When I was starting out, like so many others in a “helping profession,” I wanted to fix others and make them feel better. That is not the role of a therapist. Allowing others to struggle and make sense of their own lives can be hard to bear witness to as I often wanted to jump in and save them from these painful emotions. Part of the process of genuine, authentic therapy is discomfort. I would be robbing clients of their growth if I didn’t allow them to experience the whole spectrum of emotions that come up in psychotherapy. It is important to have faith in the process.

As a clinician I need to know the disorders, treatments, and techniques, but many clients feel helped most when I’m able to put all that aside, pay attention to how they feel, and just be with them in their grief and pain. Theory and technique matter, but a genuine human connection matters more sometimes. Through that caring connection they feel empowered to do the work they need to do.

Authenticity is key.

It is a privilege to work with clients because often they are sharing intimate aspects of their lives that they have shared with no one else. Remember we are collaborators and conduits to problem solving. Thus we must be authentic in our responses to clients’ thoughts and questions. A client will pick up if you are genuine or not. I have learned to always be myself–whether that will be a good fit for the client or not. During the first session I will tell clients effective therapy requires a therapeutic alliance. A client needs to feel a connection to their therapist and not every therapist is for every client. It is important to find someone who is a good match for you, even if that person is not me.

People have a vast capacity for courage, love and forgiveness.

I routinely work with clients who have been deeply wounded by parents, siblings, or friends, yet they demonstrate open-heartedness in their willingness to forgive and preserve love.

Seeing clients’ resilience, humanity and courage have helped me put into perspective my own emotional grievances, and move toward love and forgiveness.

I Don’t Know What I Don’t Know

It is okay to not have all the answers. No one does. We can try to figure it out together.

Through my work with clients, I have discovered every clinical relationship and each session provides opportunities to view life, the world and the human experience from the eyes of another.

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