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6 things to think about before you work with a counsellor

Often people who are thinking about having counselling can feel a bit daunted about it or unsure about where to start, so I thought it would be helpful to put together some information about what to think about when have decided to look for a counsellor. This is not an exhaustive list but I thought these six items might be a good starting point.

1. It’s a courageous but rewarding thing to do

If you’ve not had counselling before, it can feel nerve-wracking. This is completely understandable. Not only are you acknowledging that you need some help but that help involves talking with a complete stranger about your private thoughts and feelings. Counselling can take some courage and as you start talking about the things that have been troubling you, you may feel a bit worse before you start to feel better because you are bringing things into your consciousness and saying them out loud. But with the counsellor’s support, and as you build a relationship with them, you may be surprised how quickly the nerves fall away and the relief of sharing and working on your problems kicks in.

“You may be surprised how quickly the nerves fall away and the relief of sharing and working on your problems kicks in.”

Whether you work with a counsellor over a short or long period, hopefully you will find it worthwhile. The process of being listened closely to by someone whose only aim is to support you can itself feel remarkable. And as you focus on working your counselling goal and start experiencing progress in how you feel the rewards of being courageous can begin to build.

2. Feeling like you are ready for change is helpful

Not everyone comes to counselling feeling like they want to make changes. Some people are pushed to start counselling by their loved ones, their GP or another body in their life such as an employer. This can mean that when they start speaking with a counsellor they are resistant and don’t want to engage with the process. They may be unable to take responsibility for themselves and dwell on the past rather than wanting to operate in here and now.

Counselling tends to be more successful more quickly when people arrive at their first session feeling able to accept responsibility for themselves and are open to exploring what the counselling process can offer them. It can still take time to build trust with the counsellor and develop a relationship where you feel comfortable to start sharing deeper information and start making changes but being open to change is a key foundation. As you may only see your counsellor on a weekly or fortnightly basis, there will be plenty of time between appointments when you are on your own to process how you are feeling and possibly to work on initiatives that you have agreed to try e.g. being more self-compassionate or taking time to do something which helps you to relax. Therefore, feeling like it is a good time in your life to enter counselling and you are ready to engage in the process is an important consideration. Most counsellors are happy to have an initial conversation with you before you start working with them so this could be a good time for you to speak with them about your readiness.

3. Counselling doesn’t have to be heavy

I think it is normal for people to think of counselling as something that’s heavy and serious. Firstly, as mentioned above in the early stages it can be nerve wracking to have to talk to a complete stranger about yourself. And there will be times when you may be speaking with your counsellor about some difficult topics, aspects of your life where you feel shame or embarrassment, experiences which are difficult to describe or perhaps secrets you’ve never said out loud. Also, people often start counselling when they have been through a difficult time and are feeling depressed, anxious or really overwhelmed with life which means they may feel very little lightness about their life.

But be assured it’s unlikely that every minute of every counselling session will be like that. Counselling can be a microcosm of life. There will be brighter moments when you are celebrating successes, times when you are just talking about the routine of life and funnier moments when you both find something hilarious.

It is important to remember that you are the client so you are in control. At any time if a conversation with your counsellor becomes too heavy or feels too much, you can press pause. Sometimes I agree a time out signal with a client. For example, if we are working online, we may agree that if things are getting too much for them or they are feeling too emotional, they can raise their hand and say so. If that happens, we may simply change the subject, agreed to end the session early or if the client is able to well speak about whether there is anything which has triggered what they are feeling. By its nature, counselling involves discussing things which are difficult but it’s also a human to human conversation so be assured there will be lighter moments and even laughter too.

4. Choose a counsellor who feels right for you

Selecting a counsellor is a personal choice. You are going to speaking to them, initially as a stranger, about private things so it’s important that it’s someone you feel comfortable with. As it is a such personal preference, it is useful to think about some criteria that would be important to you. For example, do you want to work with someone of the same age or gender as you? Would you like to focus on a specific issue such as a loss where a specialist counsellor might be more appropriate? Perhaps you have tried one style of counselling before and found it helpful, do you want to work in the same way again? Or would you like to try something different this time around? Having some ideas of what you are looking for will be helpful before you start your search. .

You will find there are online directories of counsellors such as Counselling Directory and the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy which allow you to search by problem, specialism or geography and also most counsellors have their own websites. You may then base their choice on their instincts – does a counsellor’s photograph appeal to you? do you like how they describe their service? – trusting your instincts is a very valid option. Another is to ask other people for recommendations of respected counsellors but be aware that a counsellor who is right for your acquaintance might not be right for you. Drawing up a short list of a few counsellors you are interested in and contacting them for an initial call can also help you make a decision.

I’m aware that not everyone gets to choose their own counsellor because if you accessing free counselling services, you may be simply be allocated someone. But that’s not to say you shouldn’t ask for some information about the counsellor, their experience and their style of working before you begin. And if you feel they are not for you after your initial meeting, tell the counsellor or reach out their company to let them know so an alternative approach can be considered.  

5. Which format will suit you best

The COVID-19 pandemic really opened up the different ways in which you can have counselling. Instead of just face-to-face, you can now have counselling online via video call or email, by telephone or text message. This means that you can be in control of where you have counselling and when. It also opens up who you can have counselling with too as the remote options mean it no longer needs to be a counsellor in your local area which may be important to you.

Think about what format will suit you and your schedule. Some people are very definite that counselling has to be in person but time of day and location need to be considered. If you work full time, choosing face-to-face might mean finding someone who is happy to meet you after work or at the weekend. Geographical distance could be a factor if you live in a rural area and meeting a counsellor in person means travelling or in a small town where you do not want to be seen going into a counsellor’s office. Video counselling now has the functionality to be able to share screens and use whiteboards so you can work interactively with your counsellor as you would in person and it allows you to be able to see your counsellor from your home or a private office at work. Telephone or text counselling works well for people who prefer not to be seen or have things they would like to discuss that they want to say without eye contact.

Some counsellors might also be happy to offer you a mixed format solution so you meet in person when you can and online or by telephone on weeks when work or life takes you to a different location. Think about what appeals to you and use this as a consideration when you are exploring which counsellor to select.

6. Other people may be uncomfortable

It may be helpful to know that some people in your life could seem uncomfortable when you tell them you are going to start counselling. There will be people who are very supportive, even encouraging of your decision to seek help but there may also be others, even those close to you, who appear awkward, brisk or even squirm a little when you mention it. Unfortunately, it is very common for people to feel uncomfortable about counselling for a variety of reasons which are usually more about them than they are about you.

Firstly, others may not understand what counselling is – even though it’s ultimately just a chat between two people, one of whom is supporting the other. They may be concerned you are going to be talking about them – you see it’s not about you… They may not be brave enough to seek counselling themselves and feel a bit defensive about it or their view may be based on the lingering societal stigma that needing help with your mental wellbeing is a bad thing. The list goes on… So, whilst some people in your life might not be fans of counselling, remember it is a reflection of their mindset and not about you. Your decision to seek counselling is about you helping yourself to feel better and that should be the important thing.

Above all, put yourself first

You may be deciding to start counselling because you want the support of an expert to help you work on issues you are experiencing but remember you are the client and you are the expert of your life so it is important to consider what is going to be best for you before you begin. If this list prompts any questions about my service or counselling in general, please do get in touch and I’d be happy to answer them.