Updated: Jan 23
When you first start counselling it can feel quite intimidating not really knowing what to expect or even what you're going to get out of the process. This post will name what to expect from counselling and different ways in which to notice how the process is working for you.
Manage your expectations - The first thing I would recommend is for you to manage your expectations around what counselling is and what you want out of counselling. Take some time to think about what it is you're wanting to go to counselling for and what it is you want as an outcome. Is it just a space to process? Is it working on some coping around anxiety or depression? is it to work through a challenging time in your life? Try and get an idea of what it is you're wanting to work towards or use the hour a week for (check out my post on finding the 'right' therapist for you) Your counsellor/therapist/psychotherapist will also be doing this on their side too. A question I like to ask in my consultation, which is my first meeting with a client, is what they are looking to get out of counselling - in an ideal world what would the outcome be? - from here we can then look at what is realistic.
Things to remember here -
Counselling is not a 'fix' or solution for things, but instead it is a process that will explore your inner workings, challenge thought processes, and look at techniques & strategies to manage and cope with those inner workings.
If you're only looking to do short term counselling, recognise that the work will be more solution focused for those sessions and that the work won't be 'transformational' but will offer a start in managing what's going on for you. Longer term work would allow space & time to look into more difficulties as well as doing deeper work and so can look at more intensive work or more idealistic work.
The counsellor isn't the one doing the work. If you come into sessions wanting the counsellor to tell you what to do, this isn't going to happen, unless you are going to a counsellor led approach of counselling - then there may be more direction in what you are looking into, but you will still be bringing your own 'work' content. In client led counselling, we are there to facilitate a safe space allowing you to explore, we use our skills and knowledge to guide this exploration and challenge points of view, and we may offer recommendations of exercises, strategies, & tools that could be useful, but through it all, you are the one doing the leg work behind it all. We can't read minds and so we can only collaborate with you on what you bring to sessions.
The progress you make, like with most other things in life, won’t be linear. It may be that you have ups and downs throughout the process as ultimately life will continue whilst you’re working on yourself. You need to give the process time to notice any effects, and these effects might be small things like being able to manage with bad days rather than not having any bad days.
Engagement & commitment - When engaging in counselling, it's beneficial to fully engage in the process and commit. This isn't easy, and I am certainly not saying it is, but for the process have its best chances of feeling beneficial and effective there needs to be consistency in showing up to sessions. Studies have shown that the relationship & rapport that you build with your counsellor is the most important part of the therapy being effective and so turning up to sessions is a big contributor to this relationship
In my contract I outline this commitment:
Again, this commitment and engagement goes both ways. You should be able to trust and feel safe with your counsellor, as well as being able to know they are going to be offering you the skills and qualities you have been contracted to get. I outline my own commitment to sessions in my contract with clients - I am honest about the fact that my chronic illness can play a part in moving sessions on occasion but that I am still engaged within sessions and committed to offering the consistency that is needed.
This can be something to look out for from your counsellor when starting the process - ask about their cancellation policy and what their side of this would be to give you peace of mind.
Once sessions have been going on for a while, it is still important to engage in them. It may be that engagement for you is turning up as the bare minimum and that is absolutely okay! But turning up is key. It may be that some weeks you don't feel well enough to put 100% into the session, again this is okay - the counselling sessions are doing the opposite of what they're meant to if you're feeling like you must perform in them.
If you notice that you're not really engaging in the sessions this may need a bit of reflection - what are you pulling away from? Is it that something doesn't sit right with you in the way your counsellor works? Is it that you don't feel like you connect with your counsellor? Is it that you feel the work is too challenging and it's making you feel worse? Is it that you're avoiding doing the work because it feeling uncomfortable? Whatever it is, it is worth bringing into the session with you counsellor so it can be addressed, and you can both find a way to work with it, or you can decide to end the process with your counsellor and potentially go on to look for someone else.
Wanting sessions to be 'productive' - Productive is a dirty word to me when it's used to describe a session. What does it really mean for a counselling session to be productive - are you wanting something to take away with you? wanting a revelation? Wanting that 'eureka' moment? wanting validation or to be affirmed in what your doing is enough/right/good? There can be so much behind the want for sessions to be productive when really if you're turning up to sessions, they are already productive. So, this really is about managing those internal pressures, and again, the internal expectations we are holding to ourselves within the counselling process.
I have absolutely fallen into this trap too, as a client I often feel like I need something interesting to talk about or feel like I need to be able to fill the session with content, but really a session can be there for whatever you need it to be in that moment. So, I like to reframe it and instead of looking at if counselling sessions are productive, I like to think of what it is I need today in this hour, what might be beneficial to me. You might find that being able to offload everything on your mind is useful and as a counsellor we are there to listen, hold, and reflect with you. You might sit in silence for the full 50 minutes because you just want to be in the presence of someone else and be mindful of what goes on for you in that time. You might want to talk about something specific that has happened and process the feelings that have come from it. You might want to use the session to practice a coping technique.
This is what works for me, so if you find productive to still be the word to describe this and it still allows you to take a step back and use the session for what you need rather than what you think you 'should' be doing then that's awesome :)
My counselling sessions haven't been successful - in a similar vein to productive, trying to view sessions as a success or failure can add unnecessary pressure to yourself and the sessions. This one can be tricky as I've talked about having an idea of what you want out of the sessions to be - so it is human and normal to then wonder if the sessions are fulfilling this. Again, I would ask you to reflect on what a successful session or collection of sessions would look like? Why is success with sessions important to you? But to also bring this into the sessions with your counsellor, talk about your outcome desires again and what you're feeling around it all. It might be that you are still working on this but sometimes it just takes more time and slower progress than we are used to having to aim for in the wider world.
Monitoring progress – Following on from wanting sessions to be productive or successful, it is likely that you will be monitoring your ‘progress’ in the counselling process and this brings with it some difficulties like, how do you monitor changes in thinking or ways of being? These changes often happen slowly and over time, so often counselling can feel like you aren’t moving anywhere and sometimes sitting with all of what’s going on is what’s needed before you can start to move forward – all of which is progress.
I try to look at progress in the process as each session you turn up to is progress. You are turning up and doing the work and that is more than you were doing before. Noticing yourself thinking in patterns that have been identified is progress. Noticing changes in your behaviour, actions, feelings, emotions, and state of being is progress even when you’re having a bad mental health day/week/month.
Feeling uncomfortable in sessions – being a client is challenging work! Looking inward at your cognitive functions, patterns, and then your behaviours and the relationships you hold, can be uncomfortable - like having a spotlight shining on you – it’s a really vulnerable position to be in. The main thing around this is still feeling safe in the space your counsellor holds enough to experience that discomfort, look at it, and process it. Counselling is going to feel difficult, draining, or uncomfortable at times, this is definitely to be expected, however try to take note of if you are always feeling that way after sessions as it may be that your counsellor isn’t holding you safely in whatever way that might look (as always if you feel able to bring this into your sessions to explore with your counsellor do try to do this, but otherwise if you’re feeling too unsafe to be vulnerable or feel like counselling is negatively impacting your mental health it may be time to look elsewhere).
· The biggest tip I would give is that if you trust your counsellor then also try to trust the process communicating any concerns to your counsellor along the way. It can feel so vulnerable, awkward, scary, anxiety inducing to bring these concerns into the therapy room, but it can be worth doing (this is also progress 😉)
· Be kind to yourself – yes this will probably come into your work at some point, because it is important to show ourselves compassion through this process and just in our day to day lives. This doesn’t mean not taking accountability or responsibility for what is going on and our actions, but to be able to acknowledge our place and remember we are human, we are not perfect, we are all flawed, but if you’re in counselling you’re working on yourself and that’s already an amazing step forward!
· Communication – Ask your counsellor questions before you start any sessions to make sure you are feeling as secure as you can going into things, and once there, talk to your counsellor about what’s going on for you – I guess this is part of trusting the process but try to trust your counsellor too. They are there to hold you when those emotions or worries come up.
· Journaling/ mood tracking – if you really want to have something physical to come back to, to track how counselling is working for you then try doing a counselling journal. After each session note down things you talked about, anything that cam up for you, feelings around it all, any techniques you talked about, and a sum of what you took from the session. Alternatively, you could use an app to track your mood and make a note in the app of when you have a session to see if there’s any patterns in moods. REMEMBERING not to put pressure on yourself to have to do this, this isn’t a necessity, but it can be helpful & a nice memento.
· Review - check in with your counsellor on what you're talking through and how you feel the process is going whether it's positive or negative. I try and do this with my clients in many different ways but you are able to bring this into the sessions too if you feel it's useful to you and the process.
· Use your sessions – they are your sessions, take advantage of that space for you. It might be good to push out of your comfort zone whilst you’re in that safety, a chance to look at how things might look before putting anything into action. Trust that you can do this!
Comment below with any thoughts, ideas, or tips that help you with the counselling process 😊