Talking to a counsellor can help you to understand your options and problem solve. It will focus on specific actions and goals to improve your situation.
While counsellors often deal with the same kinds of problems as therapists do, they tend to work with clients that have less complex issues and for shorter periods of time. Counselling does not typically include an in-depth analysis of past events. Read on to find out what this process is like — from the first appointment to the relationship.
On the first appointment, counsellors do their best to help you feel comfortable, and to gather as much information as possible. You'll probably be asked quite a few questions, so just answer honestly, and feel free to ask some questions yourself.
You may also be asked to fill out forms in order to help assess your situation. These are often called "intake" forms, and they are standard across many practices. They include questions like this:
- What made you come here today?
- How long have you been feeling this way? What seems to have started this problem?
- What seems to help?
Asking yourself these questions in advance can help to wrap your head around talking about your problem or background. Read or print out a full list of questions.
Counselling and/or therapy are both based on a shared agreement, a decision made by you and the professional you work with to focus on your goals and wellbeing.
Every counsellor explains this shared agreement in different ways, but it often includes the intention to:
Be present. Put bluntly, when you sign up for counselling, you are making a commitment to work on your stuff. This means that you will, at minimum, show up to every session scheduled for you. So, show up. If you can do nothing more than sit at your counsellor's office, that's ok. In turn, your counsellor will be present and dedicated to you for the duration of your session.
Share to the degree you are ready. Together, you'll be working to understand what's going on, and to find ways for change to occur. Your counsellor will need to hear about your life from you — and can only work with what you tell them. So, share as much as you feel comfortable with. If you don't know where to get started, say so. In turn, your counsellor will give you clear information about how she/he can help, how many sessions you have together, and about your rights as a client (such as knowing how your session-information is kept confidential).
Respect. You and your counsellor will work together towards your well-being. In doing so, you both agree to respect each other, your goals and yourselves. Respect will also include honouring confidentiality and patient rights.
If you don't feel comfortable the first time you meet a counsellor, remember that you might feel better the next time you go. It's common for people to go to repeated sessions before they feel they can trust or like the professional they're seeing.
It's important to feel comfortable and safe with the person you choose. Each counsellor will have his or her own style, approach and personality. If you're sure you do not have a good connection with this person, ask to see someone else.
If you can, make yourself a list of what worked and did not work about the previous counsellor. Be frank. This list will help you and others find someone who is a better fit for you.
Remember, you may not like the first person you meet, but that doesn't mean counselling is a lost cause. Eventually, you'll meet someone you can work with. Just keep trying!
Contrary to what many people think, the counselling relationship is not about getting advice. Instead, your counsellor will help to:
- make the time and space to figure out what's happening.
- question the way you look at things, the way you behave or react to situations or people.
- develop new strategies for dealing with your situation.
Counsellors do this by getting to know you, developing an understanding of your circumstances, listening to what you have to say, and by offering support and insight. That's their job.
The counselling relationship is not like talking to a friend or parent.
It won't be like sharing your feelings with a parent or a friend or a brother or sister. You know these people and they know you. They know about your past, whether you're a morning person or what you like to eat. They might know about your dreams and who you love. And they will be there for you, in the years to come. You know enough about them, to know who you can talk to and who you can trust. Of course, you can't always be sure that some of them won't tell others about your problems. But they will be there to celebrate your successes, like graduation or landing the dream job or the wedding. They may also be there for you at 4 a.m. when you are feeling lost or scared or depressed.
"I see this picture on the desk. A smiling guy in cutoffs and a tee shirt, with his family. The guy in the room wears a suit. He sits behind the desk. He doesn't smile. He doesn't look or act anything like the guy in the picture. I'd rather be counselled by the guy in the picture."
It's true that sometimes counselling can feel cold or impersonal. You're expected to bare your soul to someone who apparently has no first name, no life and no personality beyond their job. The problem here is not the counsellor: it is the nature of the counselling relationship. The counselling relationship is just not like any other and it doesn't follow any of the normal patterns.
The counselling relationship is a partnership.
Most of the time, the counselling relationship is about you sharing your feelings with a stranger. This stranger is your partner in your wellbeing. You will not know much about your counsellor's life — for example if they have children, or their children's names. You may not even know his or her first name. And they won't be there with you to celebrate birthdays, or at 4 a.m. But, this relationship will be all about you. It is the only kind of relationship that is just about you and your needs.
Despite differences in agencies and service providers, one thing is true for all: the counselling relationship is a partnership between you and a professional dedicated to giving you the skills, the knowledge and the resources to allow you to get unstuck or for you to get control of your life. This partnership allows you to take advantage of everything the counsellor knows to help you improve your situation.
Below is a list of other things you can expect from counselling. If in doubt, print this list and bring it to your session to discuss with your counsellor.
Information and Facts
- Confidentiality information. If you are under the age of 16, your counsellor will tell you exactly who he/she will share info with and when (Mom? Dad? Teacher?).
- Training and approach facts. Your service provider will describe their training and approach of their counselling, as well as the number of available sessions, the cost (if any) and the specific goals of that service. Note that some agencies only do assessment, while others only do certain kinds of treatment. All of this will be described in the first meeting. If you wish to hear it again, just ask.
- Information on what situations will cause your service agreement to end (such as missing too many sessions, attending a session while "under the influence," etc.).
- Information on your right to read your record, and under what conditions.
- If applicable, information on any medications prescribed to you by the medical team, as well their side effects, and at what point you should contact your practitioner if you have concerns.
Support for You to Understand the Information
- Ample opportunity to ask questions about any part of your treatment, including clarification about anything you do not understand or remember.
- Some counsellors will provide you with print outs or diagrams of ideas that matter to you. If you need to take notes, jot down thoughts, or take home handouts with the information provided, simply say so. Most medications come with info sheets from the pharmacy. All of these are a good back up.
- The opportunity to bring a friend if you find you have trouble remembering everything you are told.
Support in between Sessions
- Talk to your counsellor about bringing a list of issues to talk about, with the most critical ones noted or any questions you need answered.
- Ask about working out a safety plan for between sessions, when the counselor is not available, or for online or community resources. Fill out a Coping Kit and discuss it with your counselor.
Respect the Whole Way through
- You have a right to be treated with respect, as a partner in the process. That includes asking any questions that you feel are relevant.
- You may not like the answers or wish they were different, but for the most part, you have the right to be informed, which means that the issues were discussed and that you understand the reasoning behind a decision. This is especially important when issues of "consent" are involved even though your consent may not be required.
- Treatment is hard, courageous work. You will sometimes feel depleted or sad as a result of a session, or in between sessions. Many factors add to this, such as initial reaction to medications, stirring up painful memories, etc. Talk to your counsellor about this: explain your concerns and share how the sessions are affecting you. He/she is there to support you.