Failure in the Counseling Room, Part 1

May 2, 2016

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It’s an uncomfortable topic, but one I think about regularly: my shortcomings and limitations in the counseling room. The context for seeing one’s shortcomings in the counseling room may vary from counselor to counselor, but three common themes seem to regularly recycle in conversations with other counselors. They are:

(1) The counselee might stop engaging with his or her struggles and God’s Word.(2) The counselee’s interest in change and maturity might evaporate.
(3) The counselee prematurely and abruptly terminates the counseling relationship.

These struggles generally seem to manifest themselves in long-term counseling cases that stretch on for a year or more in which the counselor develops a sense of long-term personal investment in the counselee. So what happens in these cases? Part of the explanation might be our own weariness, lack of empathy, or self-reliance, and part of the explanation might be in the counselees’ pride or discouragement. Let’s briefly consider each of these factors.

When I Don’t Understand or See a Way Forward (Weariness, Lack of Empathy, or Self-Reliance)

When meeting with counselees for an initial meeting, or a predetermined number of sessions, I find the energy tends to run high, and the heart issues rise to the surface quickly counselees begin describing their reasons for pursuing counseling and the state of their relationship with the Lord. The “pressure” is on, the meetings are limited, and the counseling room has a clear sense of purpose, shared commitment to address the matters at hand, and an openness to mutually talk, listen, and consider God’s truth. Perhaps there are one or two key issues to clarify before helping the counselees consider how to continue applying God’s Word in their lives, and then counseling winds down.

However, when a counseling relationship continues over the course of a year or more, the issues can become muddled and heavily-layered, the energy and hope in change and godly fruit can wane, and the sense of settling in for the long-haul on a besetting sin may take over both the counselor and counselee. The counselee may find counseling more routine in their lives, and much like going to work every day. Each meeting may begin to carry an increasingly louder note of obligation. Counselors may look back over a year or more’s worth of notes, hours spent in preparation, hours spent in counseling, and find themselves in a position of being “stuck,” unsure of how to untangle a struggle that seems to knot itself up between sessions.

This is felt most notably as counselees run back to the same destructive and foolish habits, even in light of regularly hearing the truth of God’s Word that identifies their choices as harmful disobedience. Perhaps in the beginning, the counselor may have demonstrated godly compassion and grace in the counseling room, but the long-lasting lure of the sin pattern in counselees’ lives become baffling and difficult for the counselor to engage, and a nagging weight of weariness takes its toll in the counseling room.

Struggles to relate to an ongoing sin pattern can be genuinely disruptive to the work in the counseling room, as both the counselor and counselee are sharply aware of the counselor’s failure to empathize. This may be the overflow of the counselor being critical or judgmental of the counselee’s persistent struggle with the same sin pattern.

When I Don’t See the Fruit of Change (The Counselee’s Pride or Discouragement)

It was not long into my first year as a biblical counselor that I started meeting with an especially hard-hearted counselee. Initially she seemed open and approachable. As our meetings continued, however, our conversations shifted to her motives and desires, and it became clear that she was unwilling to see repentance and forgiveness as better than her habitual bitterness and anger.

When counselees cling to hard-heartedness, movement forward in spiritual growth and maturity is stalled because they are not receptive to God’s Word or to correction. They harbor a pride in their perceived ability to make themselves “better,” and yet, become progressively hardened as their expectations of a “quick fix” are disappointed.

Another contributing factor may be that the counselees feel overwhelmed by the depth of their problems and begin to despair that they have a hope of ever experiencing freedom and spiritual refreshment. A drop in doing homework assignments and spending time in prayer and God’s Word between appointments may become evident. Counselees might ponder the question, “If I’m always going to deal with this, why bother?”  They expects the counselor to do all the work and heavy lifting during the counseling appointment and lose the sense of their responsibility to participate daily in the pursuit of God’s power manifesting in their weakness.

Join the Conversation

How have you thought about the experience of “failure” in the counseling room? What have you seen that you would attribute to yourself? How have you dealt with these matters?