Are you really listening? A view from the other side. By Gitte Backhausen – patient

Okay, so I know it’s practitioner month on My Health Career in May and that most of what we’re doing is sharing stories about the inspiring things health professionals are up to. When I got this article through from Gitte, I literally felt a bit sick in my stomach reading about everything she’d been through. And if you’re a practitioner or student, I kinda actually hope you do too. Because sometimes we need to hear about how horrible it is for our patients when things go wrong to inspire us to do better. Amanda – founder MHC.


“You are not spared from illness or the need for support, just because you work in the health industry. As a counsellor myself, with six years experience within counselling, career coaching and disability services, I’m all for seeking support. So, over the past couple of years I have reached out to professionals to support me through some very challenging life events. I’ve had five different counsellors/psychologists over this period and I fired all of them! It’s my hope that by sharing my experiences I can inspire practitioners to reflect on their own practice and create discussion around ethics, professionalism and standards for the helping profession. Here are some of the difficulties I encountered:

Lack of confidentiality and respect

I was ill with glandular fever/post viral fatigue for 18 months a few years back. Early in my illness I was very fatigued and basically housebound and found a counsellor that offered Skype sessions. Once we got past the fact that she felt intimidated about me being a counsellor myself, things weren’t too bad. I reminded her that in the sessions I’m simply a human being that needs support, not a counsellor or coach. She did her best to take that onboard.

distracted health professionalHowever, one day the counsellor’s son walked in during our Skype session and the therapist had a conversation with him, which changed my experience of the therapy. This particular counsellor was also clearly distracted by her mobile phone a few times and it was evident that she wasn’t fully present with me. I gave up and moved on, I thought it was time and an opportunity to find someone to see face-to-face.

Inability to differentiate

Unfortunately my next therapist was so caught up in my story and concerns that she wasn’t very helpful at all. My story was similar to hers in several ways, and she was no doubt desperate to help me through what was a very difficult time for me. What I found really unhelpful was that she kept suggesting what to do, what to try, what to eat/not eat in order to beat my illness and regain my health. Mind you, she was a therapist, not a doctor or someone trained in physical healing or nutrition.

The main problem was that she forgot to ask me questions, and help me to find my own way. Isn’t that the basic idea with counselling? I did comment on the fact that it wasn’t helpful, but she was really caught up in her worries about me and unable to differentiate probably because she identified with my challenges. Having a therapist worry rather than supporting you in your functioning is simply a waste of time, energy not to mention money. I had a good break from therapy after that. I didn’t need another worrier in addition to myself.

Not allowing space for feelings

Each practitioner works differently, that’s a given, and I thought it was time to try a new approach. I was recommended a psychologist, but she was very focused on the thinking process and there was very little room for feelings in the sessions. She claimed that feelings did not belong in the counselling room. She stated that feelings belong in the relationship in which the feelings were related to. Well, if I could process my feelings elsewhere at that point, why would I seek support?

I did have a discussion about this with the psychologist, as her approach wasn’t working for me. But it left me feeling misunderstood and having to fit into her ways rather than her tuning into my specific personality and need for support. I felt I had to spend the sessions on how to make the sessions work and discuss our different viewpoints, rather than on the challenges I was facing.

Disclosure of inappropriate information & lack of boundaries

Disclosure in a professional counselling relationship is an interesting one. During my training I learned that the only reason to disclose personal information should be a rare occasion and only if it was carefully considered and would benefit the client in their process.

After a good break from therapists, I found a new counsellor. After the first session with her I knew that she was struggling with anxiety herself, she had given up a job due to stress and she also shared her personal opinion about one of my previous therapists. I wasn’t so keen to go back as it felt more like a chat with a ‘friend’ sharing her own story, than a professional counselling relationship.

However, a few months later after another challenging major life event had presented itself in my life, I came back to her for a second session. I like to give people another chance.

In the second session with her, she disclosed that she had been suicidal at some point in her life, lost a business during the GFC and that she had had six miscarriages before she had a full pregnancy. She continued to tell me that I wouldn’t fall pregnant until I was on my “right path”. That’s when I broke down in tears, I’d had enough. I’ve heard all the opinions in the world from others about infertility. My gosh, why can’t therapists get that it is not their job to tell me anything, have an opinion or a solutions for me or to fix me or my situation? It is their job to help me find my own way with what life presents me!

She furthermore disclosed feelings that she had in relation to her husband and some of the things she had struggled with in her own therapy. No, not helpful at all for my process.

This was way too much disclosure of private information.

In addition to this her boundaries around time were way off. For some it may seem like a kind gesture not to be so strict about a one-hour session, but let me tell you, had we finished at the one-hour mark I think I would have been ok. During the next 45 minutes things went really pear-shaped because she disclosed so much personal information and rather than listening and helping me in my process it became a discussion. Not helpful at all. Boundaries please.

The small stuff

I’ve mentioned some of the major things that have been unhelpful for me with the therapists I’ve engaged with along the way. The other small stuff includes feeding the cat on my arrival, being clearly distracted by a mobile phone, not really listening (I think this applies to 99% of all therapist and health care practitioners and doctors I’ve met) and making unrealistic statements and promises inappropriate and hurtful for my situation.

It blows my mind that something so basic as great listening skills is such a rare skill, even in the mental health industry. If I could help change one single thing in this world, it would be to help helpers (and all human beings) understand that really truly listening and being fully present with another human being is the best healing you can offer anyone. Followed by supporting people in finding their own solutions/strategies, is the basic foundation for real support, healing and empowerment.

In my own work I’ve seen what really listening to someone else can do for them. Taking the time to understand the world from their perspective, helping them (by asking questions, not by telling them what to do) to find their own way, tapping into their strengths and sitting with them in the difficult feelings as well as the joyful ones.

My hope is that you will take a moment to reflect on your own practice. How do you show up when you are with your clients? Do you really listen? Which of your beliefs, behaviours and actions are helpful for your clients, and which are not?

And please listen, really listen.

Gitte Backhausen”

Gitte Backhausen profileGitte Backhausen has a bachelor degree in counselling and career coaching and has worked in mental health, career coaching and disability services for the past six years.




Image: Pakorn – freedigitalphotos

More articles on My Health Career:

Facebook Twitter Linkedin Email


  1. Andy Kelly says:

    Ah Gitte. The difference to between listening and feeling listened to. Counselling is difficult..that’s why we go to training to learn it. Very few of the professions in which you would expect counselling skill would be taught, (medicine, social work, nursing, care workers, occupational therapists etc).are taught in anything more than a piecemeal way. Sadly too, increasingly counselling is being ‘taught/learned’ on entirely on-line formats where the learner gets little experience and even less supervision.
    And, in any counselling relationship, you bring you and the client brings themselves. The trained and experienced counsellor learns the discipline to manage their own ‘stuff’ to enable them to stay focused on the client’s issues.
    Enter into crisis counselling in a hospital ED or in a mental health emergency centre and the demand increases many fold.
    It is a tough gig for those who are trying to carry out the role professionally.

Speak Your Mind