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.

The Best Way Out is Always Through

We all have faced a situation that seem insurmountable at one point or another in life. Some problems are insoluble. Some situations a struggle through a dark forest where there is no path and no light to guide you.

Which is why I remind you as Robert Frost so eloquently stated….

The best way out is always through.

As a therapist, sometimes my job is to be with my clients as they “get through.” Which I take to mean looking at one’s situation in a cold hard light. That can be hard to do – but necessary. Because we all are capable of deluding ourselves by telling little, white lies. These lies can come in the form of:
It’s not that bad.
It’s not my fault.

That wasn’t my “intention.”
Things will get better without me changing…if I can just wait it out.

Do any of these sound familiar?

Through careful and meaningful counseling, I work with my clients to strip away the falsehoods and look reality in the face. The work is not always easy. Counseling can be very uncomfortable. Yet when one begins to come to the realization the best way out is through, it’s good to have someone there to urge us on with encouragement and support – knowing that we are not alone. This is the gift of therapy.

Only by being honest and true, can we take a full assessment of our lives and then begin to make real and concrete changes. If we don’t, we end up just doing what we’ve always done and getting what we’ve always gotten.

Life’s too short. Change and personal growth can be difficult. But the alternative is stagnation. And a stagnant life can be full of depression, anxiety, fear, anger, etc.

Thus it is time to ask yourself: are you ready to make is through to the other side?

When Something is REALLY Bothering You

There’s a strong connection between the way you think and the way you feel. And it goes both ways. The way you think affects your emotional state and your emotional state affects the way you think. These are the guiding principles at the heart of CBT and REBT.

There’s a brutal truth in life that some people refuse to accept: You have no control over many of the things that happen in your life.

When something is really bothering you common remedies are to talk about it or to sleep on it. What’s interesting is that when we stop to think about these remedies they don’t really change anything about the situation. All of the external variables remain the same after the fact.

Yet what is in your control is the ability to change your attitude towards these external variables, your beliefs about yourself, others, and the external world at large. Sometimes this change in attitude makes all the difference in the world. It makes a difference in that you feel more prepared to face the unalterable facts of your present.

There are really only two channels for finding relief if you’re unhappy with your current set of circumstances. You can change them or you can change the way you think about them. Not working to change your bad circumstances when you’re capable of doing so is a form of self-sabotage, but we’ve also got to recognize that we all face certain variables in our lives that are immutable, that no matter how much you wish your particular unalterable circumstances were different you’re hitting your head against the wall when you try to change them because they’ll never change.

Being able to distinguish between those unwanted external variables that are changeable from those that are unchangeable is half the battle. Resisting this truism will bring great suffering into your life. The other half the battle is finding a way to live with the things you can’t change, to realize that despite their unchangeability you still retain the power to alter your beliefs around them and thereby find relief. You retain the power to either leave those unwanted unchangeable variables hanging, which is like leaving open wounds unattended, or to accept them, which is like bandaging those wounds in order to let them heal so that you can eventually move forward.

Let’s face it: some things that happen in life are things that you should shrug off and stop letting things bother you, while other situations deserve your attention. Emotionally maturity requires us to be able to differentiate between the two.

The best way to know the difference is to ask yourself what you can do about what’s bothering you. If there’s something that you can do about the situation, do it. You’ll feel a lot better. If there really is nothing that you can do about that given situation, decide to let it go and focus on changing what is within your control: your perspective.

Why Mind Reading is Problematic


Lots of people carry around a lot of resentment and hostility towards others in our lives and it’s not just due to the tangible behaviors they enact that we believe to be wrong. In fact probably more important than the behaviors themselves are the thoughts and motivations we believe are behind these behaviors. We begin to draw up a psychological picture and the picture is grim. We see these people as cold, callous, uncaring, cruel, jealous, spiteful, evil, etc. We see the very worst in them and then take it for granted that their behaviors stem from those bad thoughts and qualities. We use imagined internal motivations as justification for our resentment and hostility towards them. We justify our own bad behavior based on what can be PURE fiction, a story we made up in our head.

Even the most socially adept individuals routinely misread other people’s emotions because of their own biases, insecurities, personal histories, cultural tendencies, attachment style, or situational factors. Often we have a need to see people a certain way to make ourselves feel better; with our view of the other person being a projection.

What we’re falling victim to when we assume we know why people do what they do is the cognitive distortion of mind reading, which is where we ascribe intentions to people’s actions despite little or no evidence to prove it.

A common thing people do is judge themselves by their intentions and others by their actions. Thus they give themselves the benefit of the doubt, but do not bestow this on other people in their lives.

Mind reading is assuming what someone else is thinking without having much to go on. If we rely too much on mind reading, we can make mistakes about what others think of us, which can really wreak havoc with our mood. It can destroy our relationships. Mind reading often leads to depression and anxiety, especially social anxiety. Consequently, it can be helpful to learn to recognize and respond to common faulty thinking patterns such as mind reading.


The strategy most of us employ in order to lower that sense of resentment and hostility is to forgive the person we feel has wronged us for the concrete behavior. But a better way, one that leads to mutual understanding, is to actively challenge our own mind reading and at least consider the possibility that the behavior we’re upset about sprung from less destructive thoughts and motivations than we are imagining. That behavior could be the result of deep suffering, mental health issues, wrong perceptions, or the feeling of having been wronged, or any number of other possibilities.

The fact is we don’t know, we just think we know. While the behavior was destructive it may have sprung from a desire to be productive. We won’t know unless we ask the right questions. And at any rate very few people, if any, believe themselves to be the villains in their life dramas. Powerful justifications are put into place to protect the psyche from that responsibility, so that most go about their daily lives feeling more or less justified for the words and actions that have had a negative effect on others. When we can at least make room for other possibilities rather than automatically landing on highly destructive imagined thoughts and behaviors, our resentment and hostility start to make way for empathy and understanding. And that helps us, even if nothing else changes about the situation, because it’s a real burden to carry around resentment and hostility, this burden negatively colors our lives and relationships even when the people we’re directing our resentment and hostility towards are nowhere in sight.

Getting Through The Tough Times in Life

Perhaps you’re not having the best week… or month… or year. I get it. Many feel the same. Covid-19 has not helped!

Over the course of a lifetime, we will each go through many difficult times. We naturally have to transition between different chapters of our lives and none of escape trying moments. It is during these times when it is important to be able to tap into our toolbox of coping skills to make it through.

There are four key ingredients to developing coping skills for resilience: connection, wellness, healthy thinking, and finding meaning.


Life is full of ups and downs but many of us fall into what we might call the non-change bias. While in the midst of being ‘up’ we think we’ll be up forever and while in the midst of being ‘down’ we think we’ll be down forever. What I gently remind my clients is life is in constant flux. One of my favorite coping mantras is, “this too shall pass.”

So really getting through the rocky periods of life starts with consciously distancing ourselves from the bias of non-change. We can remind ourselves that ‘this too shall pass’. Just like we wanted the good times to stay around forever and they didn’t the bad times will likely once again make way for the good. Both things good and bad, come and go. Something that holds true for us all.

Sometimes the necessary changes to get things back on track are within our locus of control but sometimes they aren’t but either way we put ourselves in a better position to weather the storm when we remember that non-change is an illusion, permanence is an illusion.  As a Greek philosopher famously said, “Change is the only constant.”


Change and impermanence are the rules of existence and the rules of human life. These insights can help us from sinking into hopelessness when things aren’t going our way. The vicious cycle that occurs to many of us when we’re going through a rocky period of life is that we unknowingly contribute to its intensity and duration due to our own cynical attitudes and behaviors. We’re not in a state of readiness where we can notice and embrace various opportunities around us but in a state of passivity or even worse negativity where we’re destructive towards ourselves, others, and the world.


So again cultivating a state of going with the flow is beneficial to all aspects of mental health. Life throws curveballs! It is important to see where we can embrace the plethora of opportunities that will get us out of the funk we are in starts with ditching the non-change bias. Even if there’s not a thing we can do to influence the situation external conditions will eventually change on their own anyway, and remembering that will help us better bear up under unwanted conditions.

Take responsibility for how you deal with change. As human beings to be able to adapt is key to survival. Change is something that will test a person’s inner resources and requires adaption if they are to successfully overcome stress and other negative emotions that accompany transition. Very few life transitions, positive or negative, go smoothly or effortlessly. Consequently, any change can take a toll.

If change has caught you off-guard you can get discombobulated. The trick is to remember it is one of many changes that will come your way as you progress through life. Take comfort in knowing we all will have to navigate change in our lives. It is a universal human experience. Counseling can help you dig into your toolbox to see what resources you have to cope.

If you find changes in your life overwhelming, you do not have to deal with them all by yourself. If you hate change, counseling can help you at least tolerate it. There is no law saying you have to like change, but change is going to happen, like it or not.