Most clients are initially nervous about counseling. Some even report that they still feel lost mid-way through. And frankly, why wouldn’t you? Counseling is a somewhat mysterious process both in its nature, and in the notion that there simply isn’t a lot written for clients about what they should expect.
Reinforcing that notion in his book, On Being a Therapist, Dr. Jeffrey Kottler remarks the following, in the section entitled, “On Being a Client: How to Get the Most from Therapy”:
“Let’s acknowledge at the outset that [counseling] is a pretty strange enterprise. You sit in a room with someone whose job it is to listen to your story, ask questions, and then talk to you about what is most upsetting. This professional doesn’t actually do anything besides talk — she doesn’t do any procedures, surgical interventions, or, in most cases, even offer any drugs. It’s just about talking with one another, with the anticipation that such conversation will cure, if not ameliorate, any disturbing symptoms of depression, anxiety, loneliness, or confusion. That’s pretty remarkable in itself, but then consider that there is not necessarily universal, much less standard, agreement on the best way to proceed. We don’t even fully understand how and why the process works — and if we think we do, there’s likely a half dozen alternative explanations that may directly contradict what is offered. So, if you aren’t confused, you aren’t paying attention. You should have lots of questions. I’ve been doing this awfully long time and I still have a lot of questions.”
(NOTE: There is a copy of this book in our waiting room, if you’d like to read more, or you can buy it here!)
In light of all that, here are a few suggestions I’d make based on my experience with clients across my career in mental health. I hope they are helpful for you as you move through your time here at Change, Inc.!
- Try to Practice Patience. Remember, your problems are very unlikely to have arisen overnight, so they’re unlikely to go away in that amount of time either. Try to use this insight as a frame of reference for the time it may take to root out the causes of your struggle and to attempt to resolve it. Consider giving counseling at least 90 days (averaging once a week appointments) — by then you should know if it is helping.
- Try to Expect Some Struggle with Willingness. Related to the above, it may be helpful to recognize that the overall duration of counseling is sometimes longer than clients intend because of the ebb and flow of their own willingness – willingness to see things in a different light, to try new behaviors, and/or to give up old ways. The things counselors ask of clients are often unfamiliar, and sometimes painful, if for no other reason than they require some concession that what we were trying before isn’t working. Don’t be too hard on yourself here. It takes time to become willing to try something new.
- Try to be Honest. Contrary to popular opinion, counselors are bad at reading minds. So, we really, really need you to be honest with us, and this doesn’t include just being honest about your life and your past, but about the relationship between the two of us — if you’re feeling offended, misunderstood, confused, frustrated — these things are important to disclose so that the counselor realign with you and help you feel safe and accepted again. But, we can’t help you work on or through what we don’t know. We invite you to tell us!
- Try to Think Realistically. At the end of the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy discovers that Oz is really not so great and powerful. Through tears, she says, “You’re a very bad man!” Oz responds, “Oh, no, my dear! I’m a very good man — just a very bad wizard.” The same is true for the persons sitting across from you in therapy – they may be very good counselors, but they’ll make very bad wizards. They won’t be able to wave magic wands, produce 100% turnaround, or erase troubled pasts. But they can help you move through a continuum of change, be wonderful guides to understanding yourself and your world, and can help clarify the immense confusion that surrounds interpersonal work.
Ryan Thomas Neace, MA, LPC, NCC, CCMHC, is the founder of Change, Inc., the premier counseling and wellness center of South City, St. Louis, MO. Contact him for counseling at 314-669-6242, or email@example.com.