Assumptions for Therapy: Can You Relate?

Setting the Stage

Occasionally people are surprised when I ask what they want out of counselling, telling me that they’re keeping an open mind and will wait and see what evolves.

Most of us enter therapy with some idea of what we would like to see different in our lives.  This is great and shows engagement in the counselling process.

I have a habit of declaring what my articles are not about before getting into the meat and potatoes of what I want to talk about.  In reflecting on this, it’s my attempt to clear away any preconceptions or assumptions that the reader may make about what I’m trying to say before I actually say it.  Since this article is about assumptions, it seems relevant to bring this up!

Show Me Some Attitude

So in that spirit, this article is not about the excellent personal goals that clients come for help with, things like bettering relationships, improving self-esteem and eliminating anxiety.  Instead I’m writing about the attitudes that many of us bring to the start of therapy.

Because people are so diverse, I rarely see one person who expresses every idea that I’m going to talk about and I’ll sometimes meet other clients who don’t espouse any.

The thing I like about these assumptions is that many of them are not clearly true or false. It can, however be useful to be aware of them.

1. The Magic Fairy Dust

Maybe you’ve suffered for a long time before coming for counselling.  In my experience, most people try to solve their problems as independently as possible.  Many make an appointment after feeling stuck and frustrated that they are no longer getting anywhere alone. After all this, it’s normal and natural to want counselling to be an instant solution.

Then comes the wish: if the therapist can “work their magic,” all will be well and it will happen almost instantaneously.  But here is the clincher: change is generated by the client, not the therapist. The counselor guides, offers important information, and facilitates the release of client potential.  The client does the work and reaps the satisfaction that comes from this.

2. Argh, Not My Life Story!

Many people worry that the counsellor is going to ask every detail of your life, starting from your experience in the womb.  Fortunately this fear is largely unfounded.  What a counsellor does need to know is what has brought you to counselling in the first place.  

The first appointment is often referred to as an assessment or initial consultation.  Without providing some background or context for the issue that you’re seeking therapy for, the therapist is unable to know your situation, will not be able to make sound recommendations or recommendations specific to your situation, and will be impaired in helping you chart the course of therapy.

3. Give Me Tools!

I love working with motivated people.  Asking for homework and tools is a great way of augmenting your therapy experience, extending it beyond the reach of the counselling office.

It’s common to want to start the “actual therapy” (like, yesterday) and if skills acquisition is your thing, be sure to choose a therapist who can work within a skills-based framework.  And, timing is everything Recommendations on which tools would best meet your needs comes from a thorough assessment of your situation as well as what techniques would pair well with who you are as a person.  In my practice, I wait until I know a client and their situation well enough before advising.  Sometimes this happens at the end of session 1, sometimes at the end of sessions 2 or 3.  Some situations are inherently more complex!

4. Tell Me What to Do!

In some counselling approaches or theoretical orientations, it’s common for the therapist to never give advice, even when asked.  Doing so may be thought to unduly bias or influence clients and distract them from finding their own answers.  There is merit to this approach: the best answers always come from within.  And, my approach around this is not hardline.  Sometimes advice is warranted, especially if a therapist, based on their experience, training and research, can perceive certain consequences that the client may wish to avoid.  The position I take is understanding first, then advice, to quote psychotherapists John and Julie Gottman. I would never offer my opinion in a situation that I didn’t understand.

5. Don’t Tell Me What to Do!

Sometimes people breathe a sigh of relief at the thought of finding an accepting, comfortable therapy environment, especially if they have been barraged by advice from others or had an upbringing where they felt controlled.  If you relate, a non-directive therapy approach can be just the ticket to facilitating you finding your own answers.

This attitude is generally only problematic if clients are resistant to any feedback from the therapist, including observations, which can limit the therapy conversation and potentially, progress. Clients vary in the amount of challenge that they seek in therapy.

6. Yes, but…

This statement usually arises repeatedly when clients ask for advice or direction from therapists but then reject all the therapists suggestions with a “yes, but…”  Therapy can then feel very frustrating for both parties!  This can be related to several factors including a poor match between client and therapist, the client wanting to make changes but experiencing fear around the practical realities of doing so, counsellors not meeting clients where they’re at or even therapist burn-out.

In Conclusion…

None of these attitudes are inherently problematic and can even be a springboard for enriching therapeutic conversations, helping clients “go deeper” with their thoughts and feelings–not limiting themselves to what they think the therapist wants to hear. If any of the above feels familiar, don’t hesitate to get that conversation going!