So you’ve been struggling with one or more challenges in your daily life for ages. Do any of these issues resonate with you?
Your boss is taking the credit for everything you do. You’ve started dreading going to work for the first time in your working life;
You’ve been increasingly anxious and finding that you don’t want to be involved in social activities that you formerly enjoyed;
You’re feeling distant from your partner. You haven’t had sex in months, but you are unable to discuss it;
You’re uncomfortable with how often you find yourself yelling at your kids.
These are all issues that might make you decide to see a counsellor. But often, seeing a counsellor won’t be your first thought, because you’re too caught up in the middle of the storm.
When bending the ear of a well-meaning friend or family member, they might say,
- Hey, have you thought about talking to someone about this?
- I’m talking to you right now.
- I mean a professional.
And that could be where the search for a counsellor begins. It might lead you to a website such as this one!
Let’s skip ahead and say that you’ve made the call and now have an appointment to see a counsellor. What can you do to ensure that you get the maximum benefit from this process?
Here are six practical tips to help see that you do:
1. ALLOW PLENTY OF TIME TO BE ON TIME
This might seem pretty obvious, but it’s easy to be late for a first appointment if you’re unfamiliar with the location of the rooms, the local transport or parking options in the area. As I say on my website, arriving late for an appointment – particularly your first one – makes you flustered and stressed. Prior to your first appointment, work out how you are getting there and exactly how long you’ll need. These days, Google Maps makes this easy.
If you are consistently late for appointments, your counsellor will probably raise this with you. Being regularly late can be seen as resistance to the process. Counselling is a valuable investment of your money and time, and it's counter-intuitive to sell yourself short on the process by being late.
It’s much better to arrive with a bit of time to spare. Once you’re into the swing of going to therapy, having a few minutes to compose yourself and think through why you are there, can provide focus, meaning you will get more out of your appointment.
2. REFLECT ON YOUR COUNSELLING BETWEEN SESSIONS
Most of the real benefit of counselling happens outsideof the counselling room. The sessions are only an hour of your life per week or fortnight (or whatever schedule you are on). Your counselling appointments are a bit like intensive training sessions. They’re the place where you collaborate with your counsellor to deepen your understanding of yourself, learn new skills to apply in challenging situations and try them out in a safe environment.
You will achieve the most growth if you take these insights and skills back into your life in a reflective manner; recalling them as you interact with those around you. This way, you can assess if you are discovering better ways to handle the situations you find challenging.
3. DO YOUR HOMEWORK
Not all therapists will give you tasks to do at home, but if they do, it’s not the time to use the excuse, “the dog ate my homework”. Whether or not homework is suggested will depend on the mode of work the counsellor is doing with you (by mode, I mean, is it Cognitive Behavioural Therapy [CBT], Gestalt, Psychodynamic, Mindfulness-based etc).
CBT, for example, typically includes the setting of tasks to be practised between sessions with checking in on “how things went” at the start of the next session. Like so many endeavours, practice makes perfect, and therapy is no different. If your counsellor is setting you home tasks as part of the work, you will no doubt have greater benefits sooner, if you show commitment by doing the work.
4. WRITE NOTES OUTSIDE OF YOUR SESSIONS (& INSIDE!)
Sure, writing is not for everyone. For some, however, writing things down reinforces ideas for them and can clarify internal processes. In keeping with TIP 3 (DO YOUR HOMEWORK), certain types of therapy will suggest writing tasks as part of that between-session work.
For example, work with substance use (including alcohol) might include keeping a log of your use, as well as detailing the circumstances of urges and triggers. This provides greater insight into one’s own inner workings.
As to clients taking notes when they are “in session”, again, for some this may be beneficial. If, as a client, you make a note of occasional ideas that resonate, looking back over these notes could prove instructive for client and counsellor alike. Reflection upon them (in session) can form the basis of useful discussion.
5. BE ASSERTIVE WITH YOUR COUNSELLOR
This is your therapy, and counsellors have an ethical obligation to ensure that they act only in the best interests of the client, you. Further, you are paying good money to do this work. Make your counsellor accountable.
If your counsellor is doing their job, they should check in with you regularly. Don’t leave a session with questions you wish you’d asked, but felt too timid. Be bold. Ask them. The discussions that arise might be extremely valuable.
If the reason you didn’t ask is because you ran out of time, make a note of it. Make sure you ask next session, or, you might even find you can answer it yourself in the meantime. See, you’re making progress!
I have regularly heard the complaint that counsellors spend too much time sharing tales from their own lives. Self-disclosure is a delicate tool to be used sparingly and judiciously for the benefit of the client. If you feel frustrated that you're spending too much time listening to your counsellor's experiences, say so. It is your session, and the focus should be on you.
6. REMEMBER, THE ONLY PERSON YOU CAN CHANGE THROUGH YOUR THERAPY IS YOU
You may have come to therapy because you were having trouble getting on with those around you. You may find that one of the early benefits of doing counselling is that you feel heard. That is, you get to unload what’s getting under your skin about the various people in your life.
But if that was all that counselling provided, its benefits would not be as great as they can be. What you will come to realise over time is that you can’t make other people change, but you can change yourself. For those sceptical about “change”, I should say that many of these changes might be in perspective. Other peoples’ behaviour may not change, but you have the capacity within you to change how their behaviour affects you and how you react to it. From your new perspective, you might even find that their behaviour does change over time also.
Of course, there is another vital tip to getting the most out of your counselling sessions. That is, make sure that you are seeing a counsellor that is a good fit for you.
That, however, is the topic for a post of its own!
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