On Fear, Anxiety, and That Sense of Being Overwhelmed: Working Hard to be a Failure

I have been reflecting on a couple of therapy sessions I had today and upon the homework I’d given my clients. It all began when my first client revealed their feeling of being overwhelmed. Then, later, another client expressed the same feeling. To each I asked, “What are you afraid of?”

That feeling, what we call being “overwhelmed,” is the outward manifestation of two underlying emotions: Anxiety and Fear. Feeling overwhelmed is at base, an anxious response to fear. It is entirely appropriate, therefore, to ask of our clients and of ourselves, “What precisely are we afraid of?”

Well, just like you, I am afraid of failing.

I was overwhelmed as a graduate student, as a businessman, as a father. In fact, I was anxious about my performance in each of those roles. And, beneath that was the fear of failing. As I go about being a professional counselor, there are times when I feel overwhelmed. It is hard to make your way through a therapeutic day without such a response; and without feeling somehow anxious that you are failing.

But, really, truly, what are the chances that I will fail? I would have to do a lot of things wrong to be considered a failure as a therapist. And, as my Parish Priest was want to say, “these would have to be acts of commission, not omission.” Yes, omissions could get me disbarred from the profession as well, but there would have to be a lot of them. And at that, they would have to be seen as somehow negligent in their comission.

Anyway, the homework I gave my clients was to come up with a checklist of what they would have to do in order to guarantee failure. My intention was one of paradox. If I can show you how far away you are from really truly failing, perhaps the anxiety will remit. Perhaps you will see yourself as, well, succeeding!

Here then is what I would have to do to fail at being a therapist (and checklists can be useful even if you never check anything off):

  1. I would have to purposefully and willfully not show up for my client’s scheduled hour.
  2. I would have to actively disengage from the client and be doing something else altogether – like checking my phone for texts, clipping my fingernails, etc.
  3. I would have to repeatedly give advice and, at that, with wanton abandon.
  4. I would have to hit on my client, or worse, engage in sexual activity.
  5. I would have to maliciously do harm and carelessly inflict some kind of cruelty.
  6. I would have to unjustifiably refuse to treat my client or to try and force them to change.
  7. I would have to talk over them and make the session somehow all about me.
  8. I would have to deliberately and without motive whatsoever, engage in inculcating my clients to my values and beliefs.
  9. I would have to engage in provocative acts of any kind; for example, belittling my patients or by engaging in overwrought sarcasm.
  10. I would have to be truly judgmental and engage in a complete negative regard for my clients.

So, as this therapeutic day comes to a close, as I find myself worn out from teaching and counseling, at a time when I would most likely feel anxious and fearful of failure, how did I do?

The answer is, simply, “nothing, nothing on THAT list anyway.”

I have probably committed no small number of errors, of missteps, of omissions, but at no time was I willfully, intentionally, wantonly committing to failing my clients or myself. I may have been cruel, but not without some amount of intentionality and care.* I may have been judgmental, but never about my client, only about their behaviors. And so forth.

I can sleep tonight knowing that I have avoided failure by a country mile.

Whether I was successful or not, well that’s for another list. At least I didn’t fail.

When you feel overwhelmed, ask yourself, “What am I afraid of?” If the answer is failure, then know this: You have to work very hard to be a failure. 

* Cruelty is often in the eye of the beholder. I subscribe to the tenets of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, or REBT, which include techniques for the active disputing of my clients’ beliefs. This is often seen as cruel by the patient. After all, they have worked long and hard to hold such beliefs! But it is those same beliefs that are the source of so much trouble. Therefore, I dispute them. I question the client as Dr. Phil might, by asking, “how’s that working out for you?” If done with intentionality, if done with therapeutic care, the idea that I was somehow being cruel soon dissipates.

About Dr Joseph Russo

Born and raised in Woodland Hills, California; now residing in Laramie, Wyoming (or "Laradise" as we call it, for good reason), with my wife Cindy, our little schnauzer, Macy Mae, and a cat named Markie. I hold a BBA from Cal State Northridge and an MBA from the University of Nevada at Reno. My first career was in business, for some 25+ years. In 2007, I shifted gears and entered the helping professions as a mental health counselor. I earned an MA in Educational Psychology and a Doctorate (PhD) in Counselor Education and Supervision. In my spare time I enjoy mentoring young and not-so-young business and non-profit executives as they go about growing their businesses and presence. I also teach part-time at the University of Wyoming, in both the Colleges of Education and Business.
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One Response to On Fear, Anxiety, and That Sense of Being Overwhelmed: Working Hard to be a Failure

  1. Cindy Brock says:

    Thanks, Dr. Russo!

    This was helpful!

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