As a psychotherapist, I had to have my own personal therapy for many years as an essential requirement of the training. There are many reasons for this, but for now I’d like to share my experience of being in a counselling room from both a client’s and therapist’s perspective. I, like many others was very nervous on my first visit as a client. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I wondered if I’d be able to talk about my darkest fears with a stranger.
Most therapists offer between 1-3 initial sessions to talk about what has brought you there – nothing too deep, just what and why now. You can give a brief overview of your family history and current situation. The therapist should explain how they work and you can discuss practical issues such as fees, timings, holidays, confidentiality etc. It is an opportunity for you to get to know each other and to decide if working together would be beneficial. These sessions are on a non-obligatory basis, in that if you do not wish to continue afterwards it is perfectly fine. These sessions are also slightly different from future ones in that the therapist may be actively directing them if necessary. If you do decide to work together, future sessions will be directed by you the client. I was surprised at how quickly I developed a rapport and trust with my therapist, although it still took time before I could talk about some really difficult things. This is not unusual and was more to do with me than the therapist, who was patient and gentle yet challenging when I needed it.
You start each session with whatever comes to mind and there is nothing off limits. Sometimes, I went to my counselling with something specific that I wanted to explore and sometimes I just said whatever came to mind once I sat down – those were definitely the most interesting and thought provoking sessions. It felt liberating being able to say whatever I wanted without feeling judged. Sometimes I went home feeling very emotional and sometimes I felt like I was walking on a cloud, but overall it made me understand myself better and with that understanding came acceptance and a peace of mind. It doesn’t mean that life since then has been a piece of cake, but it has made me much better at not only coping with but embracing the dynamic highs, lows and everything in-between of life.
Whilst there are many modalities of counselling, as I work from a psychodynamic approach, this is the perspective I’ll be writing from. (I have used the terms counselling/ psychotherapy and therapy interchangeably as in this case they mean the same thing.)
You see your therapist at the same time every week. Your therapist is only focused on you for the entire time. You will not only be listened to, you will be heard. Not all of us can expect this from our loved ones or indeed have ever experienced this level of attention before in our lives. This in itself can be a life changing experience for some people. For others, when life becomes or feels unstable, the reliability and consistency of counselling can be very grounding.
My first therapist was an analyst and was largely silent, which left me feeling lost and vulnerable. I discovered that this type of intensive therapy was not suited to me either as a client or a therapist and I left there quite quickly. Other therapists I saw were very boundaried but warm and empathic as well as challenging, which I found more helpful.
A common misconception is that the counsellor/ psychotherapist is passively listening. The reality is far more complex. The therapist will be working hard to actively listen, hear and understand you. It’s not just the words of the story that they’re listening to, it’s the subtext. What is meant by it? Why is that specific story being told? How do they seem as they’re telling it? What feelings are being picked up? Is there a gulf between what is said and the feelings they are expressing/ invoking in you? How does this fit with their past experiences? Are there patterns of feelings/ behaviours/ thoughts/ coping mechanisms that have developed? These unknown/ unrealised thoughts, feelings and beliefs live in what we call our unconscious. It’s the therapist’s job to uncover them and carefully bring these things to light and help you to make sense of them.
Someone told me recently that she has been delaying having counselling for over a year because her gp, who advised her to have counselling also told her that it would be like opening a can of worms and this scared her. It is so disappointing to hear this from anyone but much worse coming from a health professional. Counsellors understand that coping mechanisms are valuable tools and destroying them can leave someone extremely vulnerable. The skill of the therapist is to uncover unconscious feelings and challenge/ work through them in a doable way and pace for the client. Coping mechanisms and links to past experiences are brought out at appropriate times and to acceptable and manageable levels.
Sometimes traumatic events are replayed regularly in the therapy room, and people can assume that it is by talking about them that helps but it’s actually more than that. It’s by looking at them from different perspectives, perhaps an adult perspective rather than the child’s feelings you may be carrying, which changes how you begin to think of that event. In my experience both as a client and a therapist, as each event is revisited in therapy with the help of the counsellor, something different will emerge, which allows the client to have more balanced context and insight. By working through past events in this way it allows the client to let go of certain feelings which may have been locked away but unconsciously directing their life.
During counselling, it is not unusual to have various feelings towards your therapist: irritation, anger, admiration or any other feeling you would normally have. The difference from our usual life is that you can tell your counsellor. That in itself can be both a scary and freeing experience. What you can be sure of is that your counsellor won’t take it personally, but rather use it as an opportunity to explore what that means for you, where those feelings came from and how you manage them.
Although counselling is usually better with an open-ended arrangement as you really don’t know what will come up or how long it will take for you to work through it, everyone is different. It is something that you should discuss with your therapist and perhaps agree when you will review how it’s going and what more you want from it. The ending should be in both your minds from the start.
I hope this takes away some of the mystery of counselling and if you are considering it, you have a better understanding of what it is and how it can work for you.
An edited version of this can be seen on Counselling Directory. https://www.counselling-directory.org.uk/counsellor-articles/what-is-it-really-like-to-have-counselling