Facing the Fear of Judgement in Counselling

One of the biggest emotional hurdles I hear about when it comes to starting counselling is the fear of being judged by the counsellor.  Therapists know about this and many take great pains to let potential clients know about their non-judgmental approach to counselling, which is often detailed in their profiles and websites.

Let’s face it.  We live in a judgmental society where people have strong opinions about all sorts of topics. We might even confide in good friends only to be met with unwanted advice, or even criticism.

Opening Up is Hard to Do

We may then think of seeing a counsellor but we stop ourselves, thinking that we could never bear someone in a position of authority telling us that we are living our life wrongly or commenting on something we feel vulnerable about.  This is doubly hard when when we think about sharing thoughts or information that we may never have revealed to anyone else.

Sometimes people come to counselling and attend for a long time before opening up about things.  Sometimes it feels too risky to share any vulnerable information.  Being open and transparent in counselling is more likely if a trusting relationship is built over time between counsellor and counsellee.

Common Fears

I often tell my clients that I’ve witnessed so much as a counsellor over the years that very little surprises me anymore.  Also, what is a big deal in one person’s mind, may be inconsequential in another’s.

Some of the things that people fear being judged for:

  • Parenting: “I don’t like being a parent”, “I never wanted children”, “I am a poor parent”, “I don’t like my children right now”, “I never want to have children”
  • Being a survivor of abuse or being a perpetrator of abuse
  • Placing a child for adoption
  • Past or present occupations, especially those which are sex-related, on the fringe or low have low status in society
  • Poverty or a history of poverty; unemployment; underemployment
  • Previous criminal acts; jail time
  • Current criminal behaviour, such as shoplifting, fraud, etc.
  • Past or present drug or alcohol use and/or related consequences
  • Compulsive behaviours such as compulsive sexuality, sometimes known as “sex addiction”, gambling, gaming
  • Eating disorders, body issues, food choices
  • Being a health or mental health professional and not “living the life”
  • Limited access to education
  • Race, sexuality, ability
  • Suicidal thoughts or history; self-harming behaviours
  • Physical illness, mental illness
  • Miscarriage, stillbirth, infant loss
  • Abortion
  • Lack of regular exercise
  • Outbursts of anger, rage or violence, including destruction of property, physical assault
  • Alternative lifestyles such as polyamory, BDSM, kink
  • Cut offs from family members, disliking family members
  • Any kind of romantic relationship including “friends with benefits,” open relationships, affairs, infidelity
  • Religious beliefs, atheism
  • Cultural norms

This list is certainly not exhaustive and may even be surprising; you may realize that your fears are more common than you thought or you may think, “why would anyone every worry about being judged for that?!”

Do Counsellors Judge?

You may feel tremendous fear that your counsellor will judge you, but will they? Ideally, the answer is no.  In the 1950s, one of the most influential psychologists of all time, Carl Rogers, introduced the concept of “unconditional positive regard,” which refers to the therapist’s unconditional acceptance of whatever the client says or does. Note the use of the word “unconditional,” meaning no matter what.  It’s hard for judgement to compete with that.

Still, you may wonder, do therapists judge?  The short, and perhaps deflating answer is yes although it is not a counsellor’s “right” to do so. It’s a disappointment to some people that therapists are very much human beings with opinions about all sorts of things!  These opinions are obviously influenced by their life experiences, or lack thereof.  But this needn’t be a detriment to therapy if the counsellor recognizes when judgement is arising in their mind and does not act on it.  A willingness on the counsellor’s part not to put too much stock in their own judgements is also important.  Judgements are thoughts, not facts, and cause mental suffering if they are adhered to rigidly. And, when the judgement is interfering with the therapist’s ability to counsel the person effectively, it is important that they refer them to another unbiased mental health professional who can help.  

The therapist’s self-knowledge and their ability to self-reflect is key. For a period of time in my counselling career I could not work with people that were bullying others because I was bullied extensively as a child and had not yet resolved this experience. But, I was aware enough about this to recognize when I was being triggered and why, and that I had to refer to therapists who could counsel such clients impartially and compassionately.

Does Judgement Have a Flip Side?

And sometime’s a therapist’s judgement can be a good thing, focusing on something that should not be ignored.  For example, is someone is breaking up with a partner and is texting them fifty times a day, I’ll say STOP!!  Not only might they get arrested for harassment, it will likely result in ongoing turmoil and emotional pain for all parties involved.

Do Counsellors Fear Judgement from their Clients?

Yes!  Counsellors may worry about being perceived as:

  • Too old / irrelevant
  • Too young / immature
  • Inexperienced professionally
  • Undereducated – “Why don’t you have a PhD?”
  • Inexperienced personally: for example, not being partnered, not having children, divorced or separated, having limited or no experience with drugs or alcohol
  • Not effective as a counsellor
  • Greedy for the rates they charge
  • From the “wrong” social class
  • Not “together” enough to be a counsellor, or in some cases, not perfect
  • Too emotionally open; not open enough
  • Physically unhealthy
  • Having unfair policies
  • Unprofessional or Professional ‘over-kill’
  • Having boundaries that are too flexible, or too rigid

Of course, not all counsellors have such concerns but if they endorse even one of the above, I say welcome to the human race.

I’d like to end the way I often do with my articles: if problems arise in counselling, bring them up with your counsellor!  If the dialogue that comes from such a discussion is helpful and productive, the therapy and the therapeutic relationship is strengthened. If the conversation goes south, moving on to a different therapist may be your best option.