Is your counsellor 'feelings-friendly'?
In her compassionate and very useful book Constructive Wallowing, Tina Gilbertson talks about the importance of seeing a ‘feelings-friendly’ therapist. At a first glance, this distinction might seem an unnecessary one; after all, most clients expect to be asked the question "how do you feel about that?" when they go to see a therapist, which suggests that they expect - quite rightly - that exploring feelings will be usually part of the process. Nevertheless, although the vast majority of professional counsellors value and respect their client’s feelings, it is still very important for clients to be aware of the signs of when their therapist might be invalidating how they feel. Indeed, when a therapist is being feelings-unfriendly, clients can find it difficult to open up and explore the painful dimensions of their lives, since it is practically impossible to be comfortable with your therapist if you are not given enough of an opportunity to safely express how you feel.
Below I have listed four red flags that might indicate that a therapist is not sufficiently accepting and valuing your feelings.
The 'why?' syndrome
Even though different therapy approaches understand emotional distress in different ways, many are united by the fact that they believe that exploring one’s feelings, in a safe and supportive environment, is an important dimension of the therapy process.
Yet there is a vital difference between describing and exploring how you feel and having to justify your feelings. A good counsellor will be rarely guilty of making you do the latter, because they appreciate that judging you for having a particular feeling will not help you come to terms with it and move forward in your life.
However, a counsellor who is acting in a feelings-unfriendly way might explicitly or implicitly make you defend why you feel the way that you do. Although they are probably unlikely to be asking again and again "why do you feel this way?" there will often be a critical and sceptical tone to their manner, suggesting they not only do not ‘get you’, but they also believe that you have to convince them that you were entitled to feel the way that you did.
So if your counsellor is asking too many questions and/or his/her aloof and critical manner has you feeling like you are on the back foot a lot, it might be time to either change therapist or discuss this issue with them.
The norm factor
Related to the above is that, while your counsellor should be professional and respectful, it is not helpful if they are too polite and, more importantly, if they adhere too strictly to social norms about how one ‘should’ behave. This is because when a client goes to counselling, very often they want to share stuff that they would find difficult to share with others, and this includes feelings that are either widely deemed socially ‘unacceptable’ (e.g. rage) or a certain portion of society are sadly prejudiced against (e.g. attraction to people of the same sex).
Although the majority of counsellors are no strangers to self-scrutiny (which involves, in part, questioning how society has shaped them), it is still possible that your therapist finds it challenging to accept particular feelings in you because they struggle to accept it in themselves or they have been taught to see it in a prejudiced manner. The important point is this; if you find that your therapist is acting in a stereotypical way i.e. acting like how you imagine people would conventionally and unhelpfully react - then he/she is not aiding you to deeply explore your problems. Either the difficulty has to be highlighted and somehow resolved, or you will need to find another, more broad-minded therapist.
Good counselling involves the counsellor providing you with enough ‘space’ to talk about your feelings; in general, you should not feel rushed by your therapist. This is because a counselling conversation is not like a typical conversation, where you are expected to respond relatively quickly. After all, our feelings have to be translated into words, and this takes time. So if your counsellor repeatedly butts in and fails to give you that time, again this is something that should be discussed or you might want to change counsellor.
Does your counsellor’s mental map correspond to your own?
Counsellors usually have a preferred way of working (e.g. psychodynamic), and they will tend to interpret the reasons for why you are distressed through that lens. There is nothing wrong with this in of itself, especially when research has shown that the different therapy approaches roughly work as well as each other.
However, with that being said, if you find the way that your therapist is understanding your feelings is something that you do not get, and you keep on finding it hard to accept, then it is clear that your mental map of how feelings work differs from your counsellor’s. If your counsellor persists in imposing his/her understandings on you, knowing that you find it unhelpful, then this is something for discussion, as it is unlikely you are going to be helped by an approach that fails to convince you. Either the therapist has to explain his/her approach in a way that makes sense to you or s/he has to make the ‘pluralistic’ move and change their approach to fit with what you want.
In general, then, the best and most succinct way of describing a feelings-friendly therapist is that they are accepting, warm, broad-minded and-last but not least- flexible in their approach.
Tina Gilbertson, Constructive Wallowing (Viva Editions 2014).