The work of counselors and therapists is interesting, if nothing else. They spend their days talking to a lot of different people, learning about their lives and their problems and using counseling skills, other therapies and their professional insight to help people work through their problems. Yet there’s a lot of stress in the occupation, along with other drawbacks. Some of the hardest things about working as a counselor include the often painful process of working through problems itself, the slow rate with which change and healing happen, the emotional toll the work takes on a counselor and factors like the abundance of paperwork and comparatively low rates of pay.

When Things Get Worse Before They Get Better

In most areas of health, injuries don’t heal instantly. It takes time for medicines to take effect, therapies to make muscle groups stronger and damaged tissues to regrow and recover. The same is true for treating mental health concerns and for the emotional damage caused by traumas and stressful life changes. Often, counselors have to help their clients work through painful memories, experiences and beliefs about themselves as they work toward getting mentally and emotionally well.

What is the hardest thing about working as a counselor?

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As an experienced counselor, you may know that the process of working through this emotional pain is worth it due to the improvement clients will eventually see in their lives. However, this process can be painful, frustrating and overwhelming for clients, which can make it difficult for counselors as well, according to Psych Central. That means that clients may feel worse as they begin addressing their problems through counseling before they start to see positive life changes.

Setting realistic expectations for clients so that they know about the ups and downs they might encounter during the therapy process can help patients better cope with the challenges and make it less frustrating for counselors, as well.

The Slow Pace of Progress

When clients do make progress through counseling, that progress can occur in small increments and at slow rates. This can be challenging for counselors, especially when they know the thoughts, behaviors and relationship dynamics that are holding their clients back and what needs to be done to fix these patterns. Ultimately a lot of counseling is about building the relationship and working together so that the client can, with the counselor’s guidance, implement strategies to reach wellness goals. Until the client is ready to make those changes and stick with them, the counselor can only do so much. This is one of the reasons having patience is so crucial to success in a counselor’s role, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

For certain clients with certain problems, counseling can make the necessary progress within just a couple of sessions, while other clients may need years of counseling to reach their full potential.

The Emotional Drain

Another essential quality of good counselors is compassion. To build this relationship and allow the client to feel safe expressing even distressing feelings, a counselor must be able to express genuine empathy with the client. Yet feeling the weight of every clients’ every problem can be emotionally taxing. It can be difficult to leave work problems at work when you feel authentic empathy for someone who is still in a great deal of pain and distress.

For the benefit of both counselors themselves and their clients, it’s important for counselors to develop a sense of humor along with a sense of when and how to use it appropriately.

Paperwork, Pay and Distractions

Despite the challenges, counselors pursue this career path because they want to help people and because they enjoy listening and talking to others. Some of the most difficult aspects of the occupation are the ones that detract from that primary focus. Counselors regularly have to deal with necessary distractions related to paperwork and billing. In some positions, they have more responsibilities pertaining to scheduling and billing than in other roles with other organizations. However, all counselors will have to do some paperwork, such as keeping progress notes and developing and updating treatment plans.

Another downside of work as a counselor is the relatively low pay rate. The BLS reports a median wage of $44,630 for substance abuse and mental health counselors and just $35,630 for rehabilitation counselors. Considering that these roles often require a master’s degree, these salary rates aren’t exactly lucrative, especially given the amount of emotional stress counselors must cope with in their work.

Certain counseling roles pay better than others. Marriage and family therapists have a median wage of $50,090, while school and career counselors see a median salary of $56,310, the BLS reported.

Additional Resources

What Is the Hardest Thing About Working as a Psychologist?

What Is the Hardest Thing About Working as a Social Worker?

What Are the Easiest Degrees to Get in Counseling?

What Is the Salary Potential for Someone With a Counseling Degree?