How do I know when counselling is working?

You're coming to the end of your third session of therapy and you are wondering why you are there. You chose the counsellor carefully, they seem a nice enough person, but where is it all going? Maybe you're wondering, "What’s the point?". Perhaps you know someone who has been in therapy for two years, and you really don’t want to spend that much time and money on therapy. It's perfectly reasonable to start to wonder, “How will I know when counselling is working?”.


Counselling usually brings up all sorts of questions. In fact, at the early stages, it seems there are far more questions than there can possibly be answers for. Instead of helping to move on, it might feel like counselling is making things feel worse. At other times, you might come away from a session thinking all that happened was you had a chat.

Someone I know once said that she used to have to take two buses to get to counselling and it was often raining. When she got there, in a quite fragile state, her counsellor would just sit and look at her. Her counsellor’s perception may have been very different, but she didn’t ask what her counsellor was hoping to achieve. The key thing here is - if you are not sure why a counsellor is acting in a certain way, ask. Alternatively, go home and reflect, and if you still don’t know, ask.

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Communication between client and counsellor is of utmost importance: the counsellor should be able to pick up your signals, and if they can’t, perhaps ask them what they are doing and why. Sometimes, we send out the wrong signals because we don’t yet trust the counsellor, or are not ready to share memories. If you feel like that, tell your counsellor.

Back to the original question: how will I know when therapy is working?

One simple way is to tell the therapist what you want from the session, then reflect afterwards if you got what you wanted, or at least can now see how that can be achieved. Another one, and often the most common, is realising you are beginning to see things a little bit differently. You may find you are less self-critical; you might find you are using less negative language about yourself and others.

One expression I suggest to clients is that instead of saying, “I am never happy,” say “At the moment I don’t feel happy," and adding “I am hoping to be happy soon.” Many people who have been to counselling find they are almost talking like their therapist. This is a sign they are changing and taking more control, although it may feel strange at first.

You may find that not only are you being less critical, you are actually feeling more powerful and also more realistic about what you want. It is possible that you discover that what you thought you wanted has changed. Most therapy sessions last for 50 minutes, once a week - it is the work you do between sessions that will change your life, rather than the sessions themselves. Rather than ask the question during or after the session, give yourself a few days to reflect. See how you feel, notice changes.

Remember, you haven’t gone to a counsellor so they can change your life, you have gone to a counsellor so that you can change your life. It is your choices, your intentions that matter. If you can put faith in the process and the counsellor, you have a much better chance of making the changes you want to make. Maybe the question should be, “How can I make changes and how will I know when that has happened or can happen?".


How do you know when counselling is working? When you feel listened to and understood. When you feel more able to make changes and to come to terms with what (at present) you can’t change.


Some people report feeling uncomfortable or upset after a session, which is unsettling but will also be part of the change, part of moving forward. This is something you can discuss with your counsellor. Try to be realistic, be kind to yourself and your progress. A problem that had existed for 10 years may not be solved in three weeks.

It can be useful to think back to the build-up to deciding to have counselling. Were you looking forward to it? Were you dreading it? Many people find that actually, making that first appointment makes them feel better, they are taking control of the situation. Then a few sessions in, some people feel disappointed that change isn’t coming fast enough. Be kind to yourself, be realistic. Notice any changes. Are you more motivated? Less afraid? More in control? One way we can see that counselling is working is when we start to make plans and start to believe the future may possibly be OK.

A few years ago, I interviewed a young adult who had been through counselling at 13 due to behaviour problems. I asked the question, did counselling work for you? His immediate reaction was no, not really. Then he started to look back and remember, and began to tell me how his attitudes and behaviours had changed after counselling. He hadn’t thought at the time it was due to counselling, but looking back, he saw what counselling had done for him. The counsellor hadn’t told him what to do, hadn’t given him any simple answers, but had helped him work through what was going on for him.

He wasn’t a bad boy, his gran had died. His counsellor focused on helping him deal with his grief, he felt better. He had dealt with his problems, he had changed. He had moved on, without much thought. Perhaps one of the most important things for him was that she had listened, and he had felt that someone at school actually respected him. That was a change, that was counselling working.

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If you don’t feel any slight change after a few sessions ask your counsellor what they observe. Ask your family and friends, but ask yourself too. Ask the questions, "What keeps me going back?" and "How much more do need to change or recover?". Set yourself goals - not the counsellor. Remember also, that you may not be ready for everything to change, or to face some things about yourself and your life. Counselling is also working if you make the decision to pause or stop for a while. Counselling is working if you decide that this counsellor is not the right counsellor, and you would like to change and find one that you feel more comfortable with.

How do you know when counselling is working? When you feel listened to and understood. When you feel more able to make changes and to come to terms with what (at present) you can’t change. You will know that counselling is working when you hear a friend or family member talk about something that’s concerning them and you say, “Have you thought of having counselling?”. When you believe in counselling, that’s when it’s working.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Saltburn-by-the-Sea, North Yorkshire, TS12
Written by Dahlian Kirby
Saltburn-by-the-Sea, North Yorkshire, TS12

I am a counsellor and writer. I run therapeutic writing groups and also work with individuals on therapeutic journal writing by e-mail and post. I have a PhD in applied ethics.

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