What You Might Expect

We all fear the unknown. Not knowing what to expect from counseling is enough to prevent countless people from ever gracing counselors’ doors. Such fear is not limited only to potential clients. It’s also not uncommon for existing clients to quit counseling due to a lack of understanding about their rights and responsibilities in the counseling relationship. Knowing your rights and what is required of you is crucial to becoming an empowered client, both in and out of sessions. This chapter takes a look at things you might encounter in your sessions, your rights and responsibilities, your counselor’s responsibilities, how to make the most of each session, and how to keep positive momentum going between sessions. Even if you’re already active in counseling, this chapter can shed new light on how to make the most of your sessions and help you become more empowered throughout your counseling experience. 

How Can My Counselor Help Me?

Next time you visit a doctor, tell him you’ve spent some time on the Internet investigating your illness, and based on your symptoms, you’ve discovered exactly what ails you. Tell him you’re only seeing him to confirm what you’ve predetermined, and to get a specific medication. Next, you’ll likely notice him rolling his eyes, visibly expressing his assumption that you’re ignorant and misinformed. A number of physicians seem to dislike when patients play doctor, and this is quite possibly the biggest difference between the medical and counseling fields.

Now, next time you sit down with your counselor, explain how you’ve been researching and reading about what you both talked about in your last session. Tell about realizations you’ve concluded and ways in which you think you can improve yourself. Do this and you’re likely to see your counselor light up with excitement and pride, followed by an insightful and engaging session.

When you’re physically ill or injured, you see a doctor hoping to receive a correct diagnosis and instructions on what to do to feel better. Afterward, you leave and do what you’re told—take medication, do physical therapy, exercise more, and/or change your diet. Often times, there’s no follow up visit, but if there is, your progress is evaluated and your routine is adjusted if need be. You leave and continue to do as prescribed.

Counseling is similar in that you hope your counselor comes to a correct diagnosis (if a diagnosis is given), but different in that you partner with him or her in such a way to work together to help you figure out how to fix your own problems.  When meeting with your counselor, the attention from both sides should remain on you and your ability to be empowered.

The focus of change should be YOU, not someone or something else, because the only thing you can change is what’s happening in your life. 

It’s perfectly acceptable to go into a medical doctor’s office with the attitude of, “fix me up, Doc,” but if you go into your counseling sessions with the mentality that your counselor is there to fix your life, you are likely to find difficulty gaining any ground in your therapy. Eventually, you’ll stop going, as you won’t feel you’re moving forward when really you’re simply looking to the wrong person to correct your problems. If you begin your session, however, with the attitude that your counselor is someone who will help you fix your own life, your chances for success will greatly improve. Counseling is self-help.

Are My Secrets Safe?

Confidentiality is an essential part of the counseling relationship. Though the ethical integrity of every mental health practitioner cannot be accounted for, confidentiality is your right, and your counselor’s number one professional responsibility. Your counselor should speak to you early on about your rights and the limits of confidentiality according to the state in which he or she practices. It’s important that you’re informed and have an understanding of these rights and limitations so you can share with confidence. If he or she does not provide you with this information, or if you don’t fully understand, don’t hesitate to bring it up at the next session. You are entitled to know how your privacy is being protected.

What Should I Bring, and What Should I Take Away From My Sessions?

Try bringing pen and paper, a laptop, or tablet to take notes with. Just as you would for a class, jot down key points from your sessions to reflect on later. This simple action can increase your chance for success, as there is good evidence that the act of writing itself helps improve the ability to recall, especially important things, and the better, more detailed the notes, the more likely you are to remember.

For all the brainiacs reading along, let’s take a brief moment to look at some of the basic science behind writing, and why it’s so beneficial to the therapeutic process. (This topic will be fleshed out even further in the link on the Client Page titled “Journaling”) Your brain is divided into several regions that process different types of information—visual information, auditory information, verbal communication, emotions, etc.—and these regions work together. Here’s an example: imagine you’re listening to a love song while slow dancing with a romantic partner. Your brain processes the auditory information, and as a result, you experience an emotional response. The language center of your brain then strings together a verbal expression, and you speak to your loved one the words, “I love you.” 

In this case, the parts of your brain that handle hearing, emotion, and language were engaged, and information was passed to your short-term memory, but as it does, the brain doesn’t necessarily prioritize what should be remembered and what should be forgotten. Crucial information is treated exactly the same as trivial information, and both are subject to forgetfulness. In the example in the previous paragraph, you may remember what you said while dancing with your partner, but for the life of you, you can’t remember what song was playing, even though you swore you would never forget.

A detailed study of how the brain processes memory is beyond the scope of this text. Still, a basic explanation would be good for you to know. To keep things simple, try picturing your mind as a river system, and when you take notes in your sessions, imagine yourself as a prospector panning this river for gold. As mentioned earlier, your brain is divided into multiple regions that process information from your senses. Imagine these regions as springs of water that supply information about what your senses just detected. Brand new memories leave their springs-of-origin and flow downstream to form tributaries that feed into the river of your mind, which is your short-term memory. Here, memories either continue flowing safely into the ocean of your long-term store, or disappear forever from your mind, much like water evaporating into thin air.

Before the current of your mind has the chance to aimlessly direct the fate of your memories, the act of writing provides you an opportunity to wade out into your short-term stream and sift through the information much like a prospector panning for gold. In this sense, the bits and pieces of sensory information that are irrelevant or insignificant are sloshed aside, leaving only the heavier, more valuable gems that you desire to commit to paper. Basically, writing doesn’t necessarily help you remember more, but it does help to determine which information is more important, and ensure the important stuff stays with you.

Your notes may help your brain prioritize crucial information, but let’s not forget about the handiness of simply having a written record that highlights key points to review later. Not only will you have memories to take away from the session, thanks to your notes, you’ll also have something tangible to hold in your hands. This is especially important if your state of mind is troubled when you begin the session, as you will likely be too stressed, anxious, and worried to successfully retain what you and your counselor discuss. Your counselor may recommend a helpful book or movie. He or she may give a diagnosis, sometimes with a title that’s easily forgotten, and of course, he or she will tell you when your next appointment will be. These are just a few of the countless things that are helpful to write down, as recalling these things may prove difficult later. 

A simple pen and paper can be a valuable tool for taking your counseling work home with you, and as you review your notes, don’t be surprised if you find yourself jotting down questions to ask in the next session. In fact, nothing would make your counselor happier than you coming into your next session with a pad full of ideas and questions. Everyone can imagine the stereotypical therapist scribbling on a notepad saying, “How does that make you feel?” The best thing you can do is to reverse the roles. Next time, show up with your own pad saying, “This is exactly how I feel.” This proactive attitude will greatly fine-tune your counselor’s ability to discover the actual presenting problem. Above all else, don’t go into your session as a passive participant. Be active. Go in with a pen and paper expecting to get something out of it.

What Can I Do To Prepare Myself for My Sessions?

Do whatever is necessary to begin your sessions relaxed. This can be as simple as wearing comfortable clothes. If you are cold natured, bring a blanket and a warm drink. You may need to prepare yourself physically and emotionally for a session. If you don’t know how or lack the ability to do so, ask your counselor for help. If you feel overly anxious and think your excess tension could hinder your progress, ask your counselor to guide you through a relaxation exercise before beginning. You may even bring items from home to create tactile comfort and relaxation. Examples are a stuffed animal, a favorite pillow, or blanket to hold. Spend the first five minutes breathing deeply or even crying to create in you a stable frame of mind from which to give and receive. You may be the type of person who is afraid to cry around people, but keep in mind it’s nothing new for a counselor to see tearful, grieving, emotional clients. If there was ever a safe place for you to openly express your emotions, the counseling office is it.

One thing that sticks out about my time as a client was my wife shivering because she was cold in our first session. Next session, she brought a blanket to keep warm.  The blanket became a permanent fixture in our sessions, offering comfort and acting as reminder of the session when it was brought home.

Just like with the blanket, people don’t realize the importance of coming prepared. By the end of our counseling experience, I was bringing pen and paper, something to drink, and wearing cozier clothing. Think of it as bringing what you need for the work at hand. Sometimes counseling is hard work and emotionally taxing. You might need to bring “work clothes.” That is, something you feel relaxed in. My wife shivered, but you might sweat. If so, bring a towel! If your mouth gets dry when you’re nervous, bring a beverage. You get the idea.

I Like My Counselor, But Feel Uncomfortable With the Location Where We Meet; What Should I Do?

Your session should be a safe environment that fosters openness, honesty, and vulnerability. If it isn’t, you need to actively express how to make it that way. You may feel uncomfortable sitting in the spot designated for the client. If so, ask if you can rearrange the seating. Maybe you want to sit on the floor, or with your back toward the door. You may even want to sit in the counselor’s chair. If a table is available in the room and you would prefer to have something between you and the counselor, ask if you could sit there across from each other. The point is to make your environment comforting to you.

If weather permits, you may ask to go outside for a walk, as some people find the traditional counseling office scenario too confining. It’s important, however, you understand this may jeopardize your confidentiality and security. You’ll likely need to give consent, either verbally or in writing. 

Any Tips on Opening Up?

There will be times when painful instances and traumatic events come to the surface. When this occurs, be prepared to go deeper, even if it’s uncomfortable, and to express the genuine emotions derived from the intended therapy. Simply put, don’t try to hide how you feel. Your counselor is a professional who is used to seeing clients expressing all types of emotions, and is comfortable helping you—even with the ugly stuff. Be willing to let him or her into the places where trauma and pain occurred.

Openness is letting your counselor in to experience your pain, while allowing him or her freedom to give feedback. This level of trust may make you uncomfortable. It’s common that you may feel the desire to resist openness, and as a result, go on the defensive, wrongfully taking offense to things your counselor suggests. In this case, a “fight or flight” reaction can develop where you are expressing emotion, although the emotions expressed—aggravation, resentment, or isolation—are merely attempts to hide how you truly feel.

Your counselor, by no means, ever intends to offend or insult you, although he or she may occasionally ask questions or make observations that hurt your pride or dig up old wounds. If you ever feel disrespected by your mental health professional, chances are what you’re feeling isn’t the primary emotion. It’s more likely a counterfeit to redirect discomfort onto someone else. In this instance, take a closer look at your thought process and talk with your counselor about why you feel the way you do. If you’re able to control your emotions and communicate openly in this way, a deep trust will develop, one necessary for healing to occur more rapidly.

Any Tips on Being Honest?

You may be guilty of hiding more than just emotions. Be careful you don’t also hide the truth. This may be deliberate or unintentional, but either way, the result can greatly influence the help your counselor can offer. When you’re discussing a painful memory, be as detailed as possible because what you may think is trivial may be viewed as important to your counselor, and may affect how he or she proceeds with your therapy.

You own your perspective. You are the expert of your own life—your worldview, your experiences, and your own values. You hold the truth about yourself, but such a possession on its own is not enough. Without the ability to communicate it openly, you may be withholding information that is crucial to successful counseling. You have truth, so don’t be greedy with it. Withholding may make you your own saboteur, hindering your level of improvement.

What next?

After your counselor informs you that your time is up, you schedule the hour and date for your next appointment. You fold your blanket and put away your notepad. You feel good knowing you were proactive, using the face-to-face time with you counselor wisely. If you’re like most clients, however, this confidence is short lived the moment you leave, and are again faced with the struggles that brought you to counseling in the first place. But you don’t have to be afraid. You don’t have to be swayed by the whims of your troubled mind, feeling like you have nothing else to do but survive until the next time you see your counselor. Even though your session has concluded, now it’s time for the real work to begin.

You’ve been warned to avoid the “fix me” mentality, but even worse is the incorrect assumption that you must remain stagnant until your next appointment when your counselor can continue picking up the pieces of your life. You must develop a healthy frame of mind that encourages growth, and remain that way throughout your week. Remember, only you can change what’s going on in your life, and your counseling experience should by no means be limited to your counselor’s office. It’s crucial you continue your proactive approach even when you leave, and remain so until you return for another session.

Imagine paying a visit to a dietician who tells you your cholesterol is high because of your steady diet of fast food. You’re warned things will get much worse if you don’t make a change. Despite the caution and the advice you receive, you swing by a drive-thru on the way home. Why would you do such a thing? This is a question to ask about your commitment to counseling. If you aren’t doing things to make counseling more effective in your free time, you have no one to blame but yourself—certainly not your mental health professional. After all, it would be incorrect to blame the nutritionist for your poor health if you continue putting hamburgers and French fries to your lips. 

Counseling takes a great deal of work on your part, and this work can look like lots of different things. The other links on the Client Page will explain some various teachings and exercises designed to help you during the six days and twenty-three hours each week when you’re not sitting across from your counselor. These methods can be referred to as “homework”, and all homework assignments are intended to work in conjunction with your sessions to greatly enhance your counseling experience.

You may be chomping at the bit to get started with your homework, but it is recommended that you avoid diving in headfirst. Don’t attempt to master all the topics of each link at the same time. Instead, take baby steps, and develop a routine. Here’s an example: Let’s say you start out journaling every night, and this reveals how poorly you talk to others and yourself. This awareness allows you to adjust how you speak to your spouse. Nightly outbursts decrease as a result, allowing you more time to consistently practice relaxation and mindfulness techniques. Consequently, you fall into a steady nighttime ritual, and so on. 

Habitually engaging in faulty thinking and harmful behaviors may have landed you in your current predicament that requires counseling. If so, don’t expect to solve your problems with the same means that caused them. It’s time to develop a new way of life that encourages a healthy mind and body. Whether it’s journaling, exercising, meditating, taking a bubble bath, or reading before bed—do the same thing, same time, everyday. Success will come with time, but for now, with the help of your counselor, pick a homework assignment, strive to develop a routine, and watch the improvements naturally unfold.