On Being a Successful Therapist

The other day I was asked to speak with the members of the board at the agency where I work about what it is like to be a child therapist.

I was advised to describe what my day is like and “just tell one of your success stories.”

“No problem,” I thought. “This will be easy.”

So I began thinking…thinking…thinking. After about 10  minutes I was feeling pretty down. Why? I could not think of a single “success” story. Am I bad at my job? What’s wrong with me? Am I too hard on myself?

All these questions ran through my mind at once and I was having some difficulties sorting them out. So I started thinking again. Instead of racking my mind for some miracle story about how I was the psychological Sherpa for a poor orphaned soul to navigate the treacherous journey to wellness, I began to think about the general conceptualization of the term success.

Defining Success

It’s an abstract concept that is easy to define in an area such as business. It’s about numbers and numbers don’t lie. The ratio between money coming in and money going out is the definition of success in business.

Counseling is not constructed that way; the whole thing is subjective. Insurance companies try to make the objective into something subjective by creating a treatment plan with measurable objectives such as the frequency and intensity of client symptoms (crying spells, anger outbursts, depressive thoughts, etc.).

This approach bugs me though and here is why. If you measure your “success” as a therapist by whether or not a client “gets better” you will think you are the worst person in the world. Why is that? After all, shouldn’t a therapist be skilled enough to help people get “better?” Yes they should, but that data set alone is not reliable.

The problem is that there are an insane amount of variables when it comes to client symptoms. The most important and telling variable is whether or not the client is committed to getting “better.” The greatest therapist in the world cannot help a person who is not committed to improvement and likewise, the worst therapist in the world will be able to help a highly committed client.

Measuring Success

If you measure your success by whether or not a client gets “better,” you will burn out in a glorious explosion of expletives and resignation letters. So what are we to do? How do we measure success?

The answer is to challenge the very definition of the word. I came across a quote the day before I was to present before the members of the board. Winston Churchill famously said:

“Success consists of moving from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”

That’s it! I knew when I heard it that this was what I was seeking–This is success as a therapist.

“Success consists of moving from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”

A successful therapist is one who comes into each session confident, competent and present. Be confident in your training and abilities, be competent with the symptomology you are treating and be present in body, mind and spirit.

Dive in completely. Give yourself to your client for that hour (enthusiasm). Incorporate the skills and you will never fail.

Therapy is a profession that is far more difficult than I ever thought it could be. The paperwork, the bureaucracy, the insurance companies, the co-workers, the clients, the “system,” the courts, the schools, the supervisors and the politics are all factors that make this job challenging.

My greatest enemy? Myself. My self-doubt, my constant questioning, my never-ending quest for “magical” counseling skills that will completely heal all my clients all contribute to a feeling of professional hopelessness and helplessness.

Predictors For Change

When I was in graduate school, Carl Rogers never resonated with me much. I always thought that his Person-Centered Theory of counseling was a little simplistic and, well, naive. Rogers famously stated that there are three conditions (brought to the session by the therapist) that are necessary for client change.

The more I practice, the more I realize that his core three predictors for change are true: empathy, unconditional positive regard and congruence (congruence signifies realness or genuineness).

All the counseling “skills” in the world are absolutely useless if you do not bring these three traits into every single session.

Are other counseling skills necessary? YES, YES, and YES. Again, this is not an excuse to be bad at your job and be happy about it. However, it’s a wake-up call and a challenge to change your perception of success. Let go of your self-doubt and preconceived notions about how to “fix” people – fix yourself first and your clients will follow. Be of good cheer, you may just be more successful than you think.

Child therapy photo available from Shutterstock

On Being a Successful Therapist

Thomas Winterman

Thomas Winterman is a therapist, school counselor, author, and blogger who lives in Panama City, FL. His e-book, The Thrive Life, is available on Amazon. His blog can be found at


APA Reference
Winterman, T. (2015). On Being a Successful Therapist. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 17, 2020, from


Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 16 Jun 2015
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 16 Jun 2015
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