As a follow-up to my post earlier this month concerning the traumatic experiences of sexual assault and child abuse, today I’d like to share some information about counseling (or psychotherapy) for Counseling Awareness Month (do you feel more aware this April?).
There are some varied views when it comes to seeing a counselor, therapist, social worker, or other such professionals to help us deal with the more difficult and dirty parts of our lives. There is still a lot of stigma and discrimination when it comes to the subject of mental health, and part of the reason it prevails is the lack of discussion about it. Most stigma can be tied to a lack of information or understanding.
One reason some people avoid seeing a counselor is the very simple reason of not knowing what to expect. There are countless tropes and jokes out there in movies, television shows, books, etc. depicting what psychologists or therapy is like (and rarely is particularly accurate).
Since I have a bit of an inside scoop on both the personal and the professional side, I thought I would share a few important things to know about therapy before you start that will help you get the most out of seeing a counselor.
8 Things to Know to Get the Most out of Therapy
Not just about venting– A big reason a lot of people end up seeking therapy is to essentially use it as a venting session. It’s incredibly comforting to receive validation and understanding while someone actually listens to you. Sometimes you really just need a session (or two) to get everything off your chest or mind, and that’s okay. Or taking a few
minutes every session to vent about something frustrating. However, what many people don’t understand is that counseling is a lot more than just venting and listening. (There is a modality that does essentially include venting or continuous stream of thought and that is true psychoanalysis, or what most people generally think of when they picture someone lying on a couch with the therapist in a chair behind them. This type of therapy does not work well for everyone). Depending on the counselor and your needs, a plan will be discussed between you and goals will be set. Sometimes there is homework such as reading or filling out a questionnaire, or an array of other things, but the ultimate purpose is to help you make the best use of your time in and out of therapy on the road to whatever goals you’ve set. Whatever else your time may be used for during a session, be sure to do yourself a favor and do more than just vent.
Not here for advice-Some clients (and counselors) are under the mistaken impression that their job in any way includes giving advice; this could not be more wrong. A counselor’s job is to help you find your own best solutions. This is why some people get annoyed with them and counselors are often “comically” portrayed as asking cyclical questions; there’s a very good reason for the reflective questions, though. Take it from someone trained in this stuff, offering advice as a professional does not go over well, and so it isn’t done. The only person that should be making decisions for you is you, and a good counselor knows that. Their job is to make you reflect and help you find your own best solutions. Counselors are there to help you figure out why you’re in crisis (if you are), the source of current issues you’re having, identifying patterns of behavior and decisions that are detrimental to you or have aided in your difficulties; they are there to help you realize what tools you’re missing from your Mental Tool Belt of Life (it’s a real thing, okay, just go with it…), and then help you learn to use them. Some people may think a counselor wants a client to come to them forever, but for a great counselor, this couldn’t be further from the truth. A client no longer needing therapy because they’re in a good place is the ultimate goal, especially if the client doesn’t feel the need to come back because they are confident enough with their own tools. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing if you go back to see a counselor even occasionally, think of it as the same thing as a yearly physical; your mind is in no less need of maintenance and care than the rest of your body, be kind to it.
Medicine is an aid to therapy, not ultimate solution- Except for in extreme cases, medicine is not meant to solve all of your mental health woes. There is a lot more to overall mental health than messing with the chemicals in your brain, and it’s something more people need to understand (though I have to be fair and say not all who study psychology feel this way, it’s a vast field of study). In many cases medicine can and should be used, but in conjunction with counseling therapy, not in lieu of it. Medicine is just one tool in a psychologists’ tool belt and is meant to augment and assist the effects of therapy. An example: taking anti-anxiety medication either every day or for acute instances doesn’t address underlying causes that could be dealt with through proper therapy and would make medication unnecessary. There are of course, instances where there is no getting around taking medication; schizophrenia, many cases of bipolar disorder and depression, to name a few. The point is not to use medicine as the only answer or to try to use it as a quick fix when there isn’t one.
Going to take more than one visit-While not true in every scenario (that whole maintenance thing), in most cases, it is absolutely and completely true that it is going to take more than one visit with a counselor to be of any real help. It will probably take at last 3, depending on the issues and your willingness and ability to do the work; but by the time many people actually step into a therapist’s office, they’ve reached a point that a few months to a years’ worth of sessions (or more), may be what is needed. It all depends on the individual. This isn’t a bad thing, but it is important to know before going in. Think about it, most sessions last 1-1/2 hours for the first session and 50 minutes each after that. That’s not very long for someone to help you get to the root of some of your issues and help you find your way to fixing them. Limiting that even further by going in with the attitude that it’s one visit or bust, then you might as well not. Many clients see a counselor for one visit, or even three, thinking they’ve been fixed because they might have made an important realization about themselves or got their current troubles off of their chest, or started to put things on track in their life, but for long-term mental health, it’s best to go in with the understanding that it will take more than one visit, and there is no set time. In the end it’s your decision how you use your time with a counselor, if you use it, and how long you want to continue seeing them.
Put in the effort- Again, you aren’t there just to vent. While at the end of it all the hope is that you will feel better equipped to handle things, there is a lot of hard work to get there. Believe me, there’s a reason psychologists of any level of planning to practice in psychology take the classes they do. Therapy is going to get uncomfortable, difficult, and you may think about quitting because it’s too hard and you don’t want to deal with it anymore, or any number of reasons. It’s okay to feel that way, but it’s important to keep going and put in the work, the effort. A counselor can only do so much if you aren’t putting in as much effort (often more) than they are. They aren’t here to do you work, but they will help you get through it, as long as you’re leading the way. Revisiting and reviewing your goals can sometimes make putting the effort a bit easier, especially taking the time to reflect on progress you’ve made. It can be easy to miss our own progress because we’re in our own lives day to day, and it’s only when talking with someone else and reflecting on “then” and “now” that we can see the strides we’ve made. But you have to put the effort in.
Know that it won’t be easy- Therapy can be difficult, messy, and painful. There will be tears, maybe shouting, cascading emotions, all of this and more depending on what you need and if you’re trying to get all you can out of therapy; but this is good, because it means you’re putting in the effort. The issues that affect you enough that you are seeking help from a counselor are usually difficult and sometimes painful issues to be worked through. It can be daunting to hear the amount of work it takes to come out the other side of therapy in better shape than you were going in, but that’s the ultimate goal of every counselor, to help you through to the other side. Some people shy away and leave therapy the moment things get tough, and if you need to for a while, that’s okay, but it doesn’t make the issue go away and often will only make things more painful later on. If you’re going to start seeing a counselor, it won’t be easy, but it will usually be worth it.
There is a time to tackle certain issues- Seeing a counselor while dealing with daily life difficulties is no easy task. Seriously, there should be medals or something for those that make the attempt. But there is one very important thing to know: not all issues need to be dealt with the moment you think they should be. I don’t really mean depression or anxiety because those are constant, evolving, changing issues. I mainly mean trauma related issues. Trauma needs to be dealt with eventually, and there are many ways to do that, but timing is incredibly important. When you’re in the in the middle of stressful times in your life is not the best time to go diving into past trauma. It does you no good to try and tackle something like trauma when you’re stressed and taxed in other areas of your life. Safety and security is vital in recovering from trauma which cannot be achieved very well when attention is split or when stress is too high in other areas of your life. I understand wanting to tackle an issue head on and fix it now, but it unfortunately doesn’t always work that way and some things are best being worked up to instead of just diving into.
It’s okay to change counselors-If a therapist rubs you the wrong way, there’s a personality clash of some kind, or if the modality (or the method of therapy a counselor uses such as cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT, psychoanalysis, anger management, art therapy, psychodynamic, etc.) being used doesn’t suit you, it’s perfectly okay to say something and decide to change counselors. Many are happy to refer you, or you can look for yourself. Some people give up after a first meeting with a first counselor that was referred to them by some obscure work acquaintance whose mother saw them….seriously, just because someone referred a counselor doesn’t necessarily mean that person will work for you. People are unique and diverse individuals so it’s natural that it may take a time or two to find the right counselor for you. Don’t be afraid to say when something isn’t working (I know, easier said than done), but no one else is there to benefit from therapy, you are. Make it work for you by giving it the best chance to. It may take some time, and it may get really annoying trying out different counselors if you’re having trouble finding the right one, but it’s worth it.
Do you have any thoughts or views you would like to share about seeing a counselor?