How do I know which counsellor will be right for me?
How do I know which counsellor will be the right one for me? It’s a very good question, and an important one to be holding whilst you search for a counsellor to work with. This guide will help you to start thinking about some of the issues.
Let’s start with the easy stuff: narrow your search according to geographical area, and whether you want to work with a man or a woman. You probably don’t want to travel across town (or perhaps you do – you may not want someone close to home for whatever reason). Choosing the right gender of counsellor will probably be instinctive and you may already know, even if you don’t know that you know. It’s a big question, but for now don’t worry and just trust that you instinctively know what you need – when you picture a counsellor providing the kind of support you need, do you see a man or a woman? Remember that in the end you can’t get it wrong. Take solace in knowing that you can always change counsellors if you find the therapy isn’t giving you what you need – more on this later.
Check out the counsellors practicing in your chosen area. View their profiles, their web sites and any other information you can find about them. Read what they’ve written about themselves and what they offer. You’ll know fairly quickly if what they’re writing resonates with you. Does it make you want to learn more about them? Pay attention to your feelings: are you annoyed, excited, relieved, touched, bored? Do you feel cared for, understood, seen, or does it leave you feeling cold? This is all very important information and ultimately it is this that will form the basis of your decision.
I always feel it’s important to see a photo of who I might be working with. ‘A picture paints a thousand words’ so the song has it. The look on someone’s face, the expression in the eyes and the set of the mouth can speak volumes. Again, be aware of what’s happening inside you as you scrutinise, and be honest with yourself. We all judge people and situations all the time – it’s OK. The important thing is to be aware of one’s judgements and not allow them to rule you. Sometimes it’s very hard to distinguish between important information from one’s intuition, and harsh, unfair judgement stemming from one’s own shortcomings. The only guideline I can offer here in the space of this article is to try and be ruthlessly honest with yourself. By practicing this we can practice trusting ourselves on a deeper level.
Once you’ve narrowed down your choices to a few who fit the practical criteria (price, location, gender, etc.), and who you like the ‘feel’ of, the next step is to approach them. Some people get nervous about this - don’t worry, a counsellor is just a person! A good counsellor will always make 5 or 10 minutes to chat to you about what you might need and to answer any questions you might have. This initial contact will also give you the opportunity to develop your feeling for this person. Again, listen to yourself and trust what is happening inside you. You may even want to voice any concerns to the counsellor during this conversation and see how he/she responds. Don’t feel you have to make a decision there and then. You are under no obligation. You can think it over and give yourself time to compare other counsellors.
I want to mention a couple of important points: therapeutic orientation, and diversity.
You may want to consider your counsellor’s therapeutic orientation, i.e. what kind of therapy do they practice? There are many different schools of therapy with different approaches. Thankfully they break down into more manageable groups, for example: psychoanalytic, psychodynamic, person-centred, cognitive-behavioural and integrative. It’s well worth having a read about the different types to give you a sense of what’s out there – they differ greatly. A great place to start is in the ‘Therapies’ section of Counselling Directory - http://www.counselling-directory.org.uk/counselling.html This will equip you well and help you narrow your search. Again, if you really don’t know then don’t get hung up on it. It will become clearer as you start having counselling.
Diversity is a crucial issue in the arena of counselling. It is the privilege of the dominant mainstream of society to not have to consider this issue too much. If however you are from a minority group – whether it’s your race, colour, culture, sexual orientation, physical attributes, creed, lifestyle, or any number of other factors – then chances are that you can’t help but be keenly aware of it. It might be important to you then to find a counsellor who will not only be accepting of your choice/circumstance, but actively knowledgeable, empathic and supportive. Not all counsellors are created equally in this area.
The ‘fit’ between counsellor and client is possibly one of the most important criteria for a successful outcome in therapy. This ‘fit’ might come in some surprising shapes. True, the level of training, experience, skill and competence are all very important. A counsellor needs to have a good solid grounding in some kind of process or method, and good solid experience, but if there is something not quite right in the relationship between you then this may not be the right counsellor for you. Moreover, this feeling of ‘not quite right’ may be the very thing that needs addressing in therapy. The client-counsellor relationship becomes a microcosm of the client’s larger life and the more you can risk of yourself here (once there is enough trust in the relationship), then the more you will benefit from the therapy.
A counsellor isn’t there to make you feel good about yourself, but they’re also not there to abuse or insult you. Rather they are there to help you understand why you feel the way that you do so that you can have more choice in the matter. This ultimately will empower you to feel good about yourself. It’s a crucial difference. A counsellor may at times be challenging and almost certainly will need to touch some sore spots, but he or she ought to be able to do this in a supportive and constructive way, dare I say it a loving way. We have all suffered wounds from thoughtless, inept or malicious parents, carers, friends, acquaintances, colleagues, lovers etc. Some have meant to hurt us for whatever reason, and some have just been clumsy. A good counsellor however will untangle and understand this, and not repeat the injury. (We don’t always get it right, and sometimes part of the therapeutic work is to empower the client to be able to voice the hurt in the moment – in a way that he/she perhaps hasn’t been able to in the past.)
Feel free to ask about the counsellor’s training and experience, and don’t be afraid to ask for clarification if there’s something you don’t understand. It can be awkward to feel like you’re putting someone on the spot about their professional competence. On the other hand you’re entitled to know what it is you’re paying for. If the counsellor takes umbrage, well then that’s good information for you about the kind of working relationship you can expect, and fuel for your decision.
In my opinion it’s also very important to find a counsellor who has had some life experience. Technical competence and study of what makes good, effective therapy is very important, but counselling is as much an art as it is a science. One must have experienced something of life in order have some of the qualities crucial to providing good therapy: empathy, compassion, humility, non-defensiveness, non-judgemental-ness, acceptance of, and willingness to enter the client’s world. These are qualities which will become obvious at the first or second meeting, and certainly as the therapy progresses.
So, how do you find the right counsellor? There is no simple answer. You won’t fully know until you start working with one. I have outlined just some of the things you can look for and check out before you make your decision. At the end of the day you are under no obligation to continue to work with a particular counsellor. If it doesn’t feel right for you, then vote with your feet and find yourself another. Do first consider very carefully what it is that doesn’t feel right or isn’t working. This may be the very thing you need to address in your therapy and challenge in yourself and in your counsellor. It is a fine line between being a masochist, and staying with a challenging situation in order to resolve it and grow. There is also a difference between your counsellor making you feel uncomfortable, and having uncomfortable feelings during the course of the therapy. With the former it is probably right to leave. With the latter – this might be your current growing edge. Use the relationship between you and the counsellor to work this out. Talk about it. Trust your belly. If it really isn’t going anywhere or if the counsellor can’t or won’t meet you in the challenge then walk away and find another. Depending on what your issues are, simply saying ‘no’ to what isn’t right for you may be the most healing thing you can do for yourself.
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SUSAN STUBBINGS Counsellor, Supervisor, Group facilitator Registered MBACPJanuary 17th, 2017
Andrea Harrn Psychotherapist and Author of The Mood CardsMay 13th, 2011
Imi Lo: Psychotherapist, Art Therapist, Supervisor (MMH,UKCP,HCPC,MBPsS)March 29th, 2015
Keeley Townsend BA (Hons), Ad.Dip.CP with Distinction, MNCS (Acc)December 14th, 2009
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