Most people who begin counseling are not sure what to expect. There are so many myths about what happens in counseling that can be misleading or contradictory. For instance, in the movies or on TV shows we see the main character lying down on a couch and talking about their mother. We see authoritarian counselors yelling at their clients and telling them what to do. Perhaps my least favorite, we watch as the main character spills their emotions to a distant stranger with a rapidly moving pen. Yet, counseling is not about receiving advice, laying down on a couch, or being analyzed. Counseling in real life is more human than this (and far more helpful).
You may sometimes get advice or suggestions, but your concerns will also be heard and you will be treated as an individual rather than a problem that can be dismissed away with advice. You may talk about your childhood and how it has influenced who you are now, but you will (most likely) do that sitting up and it will not be the only focus of your sessions. You will also share your emotions, but you will be sharing them with a real human being who responds verbally and emotionally to you as they try to understand you and help you find how to cope with your emotions.
Editors Update: Read The Dr. Sova Interview
The Basics of Counseling
Most counselors, whether meeting at an office or through teletherapy, will spend 45-60 minutes with you each meeting. This meeting length is the right amount of time to be able to discuss what is going on without overdoing it. These meetings will cover various topics, which are relevant to helping the counselor get to know you as well as support you with what is bringing you in for help. These topics tend to focus on exploring what is bringing you in for counseling, gaining insight into why it is happening, and determining what actions can be taken to best respond to what is bringing you in for counseling. Many counselors will have you complete introductory paperwork that has information about who you are, your insurance, and how you might pay for sessions.
Other counselors add additional questions or assessments to this paperwork to get to know you better so that they might help you more effectively and efficiently. All counselors will review an informed consent that explains the nuts and bolts of their practice and of the counseling process. In fact, the first conversation you will likely have will be a conversation about what counseling is.
Still, even with this basic understanding of what happens, you might wonder what counseling will feel like or what to expect when you are in a session. Even if you have been in counseling before, you may wonder whether a new counselor’s approach or style may be different. This uncertainty about what to expect, the many myths and misconceptions about counseling, and the vulnerability of beginning something new and personal, makes this process daunting or even overwhelming for many.
Six Ways to Prepare for Your Counseling Journey
There are six things that I tell people to expect that will help them prepare for their journey in counseling. My hope is that knowing these six expectations will reduce some of the uncertainties about what will happen in therapy. Having this information will empower you to take the brave step forward in living the life you want to live.
- Counseling involves developing trust. When we meet, you are in a vulnerable position asking for help from somebody you do not know. For most people, starting this process is very anxiety-provoking. You probably do not know what to expect and this uncertainty also adds anxiety to an already anxious situation. I do not expect you to open up with your most vulnerable thoughts and feelings before you know me and trust me. My promise is to move at the pace you are comfortable with. If you ever feel pressured by me and/or are not ready for something, please talk with me about this feeling. It is helpful if you can let me know there is something you are not ready to share and give me permission to check in with you in the future to determine if you are ready to share. You will never be forced to share anything or do anything you are not ready for.
- Counseling involves collaboration. I am an expert on therapy, the brain, coping strategies, and general psychology. Only you are an expert on you and your life. Because we have different specialties that we bring to our relationship, we will do our best work if we work as a team. Our teamwork means you are encouraged to actively participate in counseling. Like any team situation, it is helpful for us if you speak up when you have concerns. My promise is to address your concerns non-defensively and nonjudgmentally. This also means you have a right to ask any questions about my expertise or my treatment plan. I promise to answer those so that we are working toward the same goals.
- Counseling involves time commitment. Since counseling requires changing automatic brain patterns, progress usually takes time. For some people, it may feel like counseling is not working at all or progress is too slow or stagnant. This can lead to being discouraged and often giving up on counseling by telling yourself things like, “This is pointless” or “I cannot be helped.” It is normal to have these reactions in counseling, especially if you started counseling with the expectation that change would be rapid or easy or, on the other hand, with the expectation that it would not work. My hope is that if you have these thoughts, you will voice them before ending treatment. This can lead to us being able to explore how things are going or discuss how we might be able to shift directions. The research shows that people who have these conversations with their counselor benefit significantly more than those who say nothing or those who quit counseling. You are much more likely to get where you want to go if you stay committed while collaborating with your counselor to find your unique path.
- Counseling involves effort. The habits, thinking patterns, and emotional responses that are bringing you in for support have been hardwired into your brain and are automatic. Changing requires effort, conscious practice, and sometimes paradigm shifts in how you view yourself, other people, and the world. Most of the change occurs in your everyday life and one of my roles is to help you figure out how to work toward your goals between our meetings. Consistent practice between our meetings is one of the strongest predictors of both achieving your treatment goals and achieving them sooner.
- Counseling involves supportive challenging. Research shows that people grow and change the most when they feel challenged but not overwhelmed. My promise is to support you unconditionally but to work with you to find the optimal level of challenge so that you can grow. It is important that you communicate with me whether you feel under-challenged or over-challenged in counseling. Also, it is also important to communicate if you do not feel supported.
- Counseling (usually) involves discomfort. Often people cope with their distress by avoiding thinking or talking about it. This tends to work well in the short term but leads to never resolving the distress in the long term. Counseling often involves facing the things we are avoiding and this can cause short-term emotional distress. My promise is to move through this distress at your pace after giving you the tools you need to face it. This is ultimately what leads to resolving problems rather than needing to spend our lives running from them.
Every Journey is Unique
My hope is that this has started to clarify what counseling will be like for you. Of course, every person is unique and has their own journey in counseling and no list could ever cover everything that will happen on that journey. Likewise, every counselor is different, and, even more importantly, every relationship that a counselor and a client share are the only one of its kind.
Your counselor will be a fellow traveler in this journey with you and will be there to support you as you grow and work toward building the life you want to live. Sometimes they will be a safe outlet for your thoughts and feelings, sometimes they will be a teacher giving you strategies, sometimes they will be a cheerleader who is in your corner, sometimes they will be a mirror reflecting back your own thoughts and ideas and helping you see them more clearly, and sometimes they will be a guide shining a light on who you are and why you are you. But always, a counselor is someone who is able to provide valuable support and help for the struggles of living that everyone encounters.
If you still have worries and doubts about what to expect in counseling, you are human. The best way you can address these is to list what worries you have and share those with your counselor. Your journey will be easier if you approach this unfamiliar road with curiosity and make this road your own.
If you don’t already have a counselor to help you find your way along the path, you can give our office a call and schedule an appointment. I would be happy to share this road with you.
Editors Suggestion: Read, The Shame of Seeking Counseling as a Man