Preparing for a counselling or therapy session

I remember reading somewhere, ‘You get out of counselling, what you put in’. This sounds like a useful idea for many areas of life and yet, with counselling, it seems to lead to the question, "OK, but what do I put in?" Or, we might ask, "If I have a counselling session tomorrow, how can I prepare for that and use that time effectively?"


In this article, I offer some ideas about preparing. I’m writing from the perspective of counselling which has a ‘relational’ feel, where a counselling relationship is central, rather than about settings where the counsellor/therapist is in some way an ‘expert’ about your situation.

Reviewing and reflecting

Before your session, perhaps even the evening before, my idea would be to review how things have been since your previous meeting. If this is your first session, this could mean taking a look at your initial email to your counsellor and noticing ways in which the situation you described has persisted, or shifted.

Which events seem most to have informed your therapeutic journey since this previous contact? What feeling or ‘heavy weight’ have you carried through this time? What have you noticed about yourself or a significant relationship in this time?

This process of reviewing can be helped by regular journaling or maybe just moving through the most recent pages of your diary or social media posts.

Arriving: Putting the day aside until later

My own experience is that I need to arrive slowly, allowing five or more minutes to ‘really arrive’. As you enter the waiting room, or wait in your car (or arrive at your device for an online session) just notice how full your day has been so far. The school run, the colleague, the neighbour, the client, the supermarket, that other driver... each of these might be taking up some cognitive energy.

My idea would be to breathe consciously. That is, choose to breathe out slowly then allow your body to choose when the next in-breath will begin. This might emerge like a sigh. 

Each of those things that has taken so much of your resource today can be put on some imaginary shelf in front of you. It’s OK to leave them there for an hour, they’ll be waiting for you after your session.

This process may remind you to finish something by e.g. texting your housemate to pick up some milk. Can your phone be put aside now? Maybe there is something in all this that refuses to be stored on the imaginary shelf; just notice that.

Gathering: The here and now

Now it’s time to really arrive in this space. Notice the textures of furnishings and objects around you. Imagine what it would be like to touch or hold those materials. You’re here. You might feel the chair holding your weight. You have a therapeutic hour to ‘just be’, to be simply and fully who you are, away from the world with someone who is genuinely interested and curious about your experience.

Purpose: A sense of what’s needed next

As you wait it may be useful to quickly reflect again on how all this began, when you first reached out to your counsellor. At that time, what was the purpose of your reaching out? There may have been difficult life experiences or feelings that you needed to move beyond. Or, what you needed may not have been clear.

Does this still seem like the reason you’re here in the waiting room today? It may not. What of your reflections, perhaps the previous evening? How do they inform you why you’re here right now? 

Conversely, it’s OK to go over and over the same experiences, thoughts or feelings if these are persisting. There is no need to ‘pick up where we left off’ as a way to ‘make progress’. 

It’s OK to treat each session as if it were your first; after all, this latest newest version of both yourself and your counsellor have, in a way, never met before.

Immediacy: Our rich inner life

Just as your session is about to begin you might ask, "Where is my breathing right now?" Low and slow? High and fast? Somewhere ‘in the middle’? This is not about attempting to change anything, it’s simply a way to begin to notice and give focus to your internal experience. 

Is it possible to find language for your rich inner life? Maybe right now you’re experiencing flatness, excitement, feeling cross, overwhelmed or ‘purple sparkly’. It’s your personal internal language that matters in this next hour, however, you want to bring that, however messy and unclear. 

Your counsellor. Ready to meet you 'in the moment'

You’ll no doubt have chosen someone from the Counselling Directory who is registered or accredited by one of the major professional membership organisations. This shows they’re highly invested in their work, including having had many personal therapy sessions as a client themselves.

Your counsellor knows what it’s like to be in the client’s chair and this allows them to attune to your immediate experience (in addition to what you bring to your daily life) with genuineness and positive regard. 

Attending to what’s happening ‘in the moment’ during a session can bring so much to the work and, of course, cannot be prepared for My experience is that part of preparing for each session is to leave enough space for the work to unfold in this way rather than being ‘over prepared’ and having a clear way to ‘fill’ the time.

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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York, YO31
Written by Richard Kershaw, Psychotherapeutic Counsellor Reg. MBACP (Accred)
York, YO31

If you’re wondering about counselling but feel unclear about what that would mean, if it's for you or how it all works then I would say send me an email. I offer a first session without fee as a way to explore and, if I can't help, I can often suggest ways forward.

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