What is it really like to have counselling?
Psychotherapists have to have their own personal therapy for many years as an essential requirement of the training. There are many reasons for this, one of them being that your therapist will have experience of being in a counselling room from both a client’s and therapist’s perspective. Many people are nervous on their first visit as a client, not sure what to expect and wondering if they’ll be able to talk about their darkest fears with a stranger, and most counsellors would have experienced this as well.
Whilst there are many modalities of counselling, this is written from a psychodynamic perspective. The terms counselling/psychotherapy and therapy have been used interchangeably, as in this case, they mean the same thing.
Often therapists will offer between one-three 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. You may be surprised at how quickly you develop a rapport and trust with your therapist, although it may still take time before talking about some really difficult things. This is not unusual.
You can start each session with whatever comes to mind, and there is nothing off limits. Sometimes, clients will have something specific that they want to explore, and sometimes they just say whatever comes to mind once they’ve sat down - those are often the most interesting and thought-provoking sessions. It can feel liberating being able to say whatever you want without feeling judged. Sessions can leave you feeling very emotional and sometimes like you’re walking on a cloud, but overall it should help you to understand yourself better and with that understanding comes acceptance and peace of mind. It doesn’t mean that life will then be a piece of cake, but it can make you much better at not only coping with but embracing the dynamic highs, lows, and everything in-between of life.
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 everyone can expect this from their loved ones or indeed have ever experienced this level of attention before in their 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.
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 or 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, carefully bring these things to light, and help you to make sense of them.
Some people believe that having counselling would be like opening a can of worms, and this can be scary. 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. If your counsellor is going too fast or too slow, then you can tell them, and that is not only ok but can be a valuable experience in itself.
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. 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 you to let go of certain feelings which may have been locked away but are unconsciously directing your 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 your 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.
Hopefully, 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.
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