Choosing Counselling: What Does This Say About Me?

I started this article in the middle of Mental Health Week so it seemed apropos that I write about stigma—one of the biggest barriers to asking for help from a counsellor or other mental health professional.

It’s not like this topic hasn’t come up before—back in 2016 I shared strategies about how to break free from mental-health related stigma and spoke about how there is no one “typical” client who attends counselling. I also wanted to let folks know that counsellors are people too and are not immune when it comes to seeking mental health help. In fact it’s a good thing!

While I hold hope that such articles may make a small contribution to widening the dialogue around seeking counselling, I still feel compelled to write more about mental health stigma — it’s improving but we’re still not there yet.

I’d like to speak in more depth about the myth of weakness—the idea that seeking counselling is a sign of mental fragility.

The Headspace

As some of you know, I have received a lot of counselling in my life and I’m grateful for it. Because of this, I’ve always considered it a normal choice, particularly since I first sought it out as a youth (and many times thereafter). And of course, I’m a counsellor who believes in counselling (not much of a stretch) so from time to time, I need to remind myself that some folks don’t consider counselling normal and may express the belief that requesting it is confirmation that  something is wrong with them.

And there’s a mental battle that can go on when it comes to choosing counselling. A battle that can persist for years. It can go something like this: Things are too hard…I’ve tried everything…I’m not coping…But I can’t ask for help! What would that say about me?

When we get to the point to take action and contact a counsellor, the decision to reach out to a therapist may feel like more of a crisis in some ways than the issues that we’re dealing with.

We might feel super-fragile and set up mental ultimatums like “If this doesn’t work out, I’m not going back,” or “This has taken me so much to get to this point, I won’t be able to handle it if it’s a bad experience.” which can inadvertently put a lot of pressure on us to have a good counselling experience….or else we quit.

While quitting may seem like an easy out, it also limits our choices and gives a false impression that counselling is a “one size fits all” thing. But the truth is, there is a ton of diversity amongst counsellors and clients alike and that finding the right match is not necessarily automatic and we often have to do our research.

Does The Experience Of Counselling Match Our Counselling Fears?

While of course I would love to say that counselling experiences are much better that the anticipatory anxiety that can lead up to it, it sucks to mention that this is sometimes not the case. There are times where the therapeutic fit is poor, or the choice of counselling in general just does not make sense, or also, an ambivalent person may find themselves at a counselling appointment, sometimes at another person’s suggestion or as an ultimatum.

But I like to think that there are more positive than negative counselling experiences. If I thought I was playing Russian roulette with every new person I met, I couldn’t work as a counsellor. It would be unethical.

What are some possible reactions to a first time counselling session?

This does vary but I have noted that a common response is one of surprise, particularly if the fear had been that counselling would be the first step in a descent into crazy.

How might clients be surprised? Here are some examples, understanding that responses will vary.

  • “We just talked about normal things! We talked about regular life. It didn’t feel weird and I wasn’t asked to go back to my time in the womb!”
  • “The office was nice, comfortable and homey. It was like a little living room and I felt at ease in there.”
  • “The counsellor was kind and non-judgemental. I felt like I could open up and that what I had to say wasn’t being scrutinized.”
  • “I laughed more than I thought I would and I also cried. Whatever I expressed was okay.”
  • “I didn’t cry at all, which surprised me!”
  • “My counsellor asked questions that I have never thought about before and I’m still thinking about these things in the week!”

What’s Next?

So let’s say that we moved from a stigmatized mindset into a new mindset where our worst fears have not materialized. In fact, we’re feeling that our counselling session wasn’t miserable or pathologizing but rather, was helpful and affirming.

What are ideas that can help us continue with this new mindset in our regular life, while also breaking mental health stigma?

Say Something a Little Bit Vulnerable

If there is a friend or family member that you feel comfortable with, opening up a little about something that is challenging for you can sometimes have surprising consequences. For example, “I’m sorry, I’m running late today. I was really worried about something and lost track of time; I’m just getting going now. I’ll see you in 10.”

Possible Results:

  • Friend or family member takes it well and offers sympathy, understanding and support
  • Friend or family member opens up to you about their anxiety which you never knew they had
  • You feel less alone and less different
  • You feel emotionally closer to your friend
  • You faced a conversation, not avoided it and you now feel stronger

And of course, not everyone receives vulnerability well – the friend may themselves get anxious, avoid the topic or ignore you. I hope such ‘friends’ are in the minority in your life and if you encounter such a reaction, or something similarly negative, that you will know in future that this is not the right choice of person to open up to.

Start A Conversation About Counselling

This can be an in-depth discussion or passing comments like “My therapist was mentioning…” or “Gotta go or I’ll be late for my counselling appointment!”

Possible Results:

  • Friend: “I have a therapist too!”
  • Friend: I have issues with….”
  • You answer questions your friend or family member has about counselling
  • You help reduce fear and stigma
  • Someone asks you the name of your counsellor so they can start the process

Join a Community

In my view, support groups are vastly underrated. But here, if the group is well facilitated and solid, folks can meet others with similar struggles and connect with others who “truly get it.” In this digital age, it can feel refreshing to meet with others in a live setting, although there is a place for online communities too—in fact sometimes it’s the best choice for some folks.

Possible Results:

  • You feel less alone
  • You learn new perspectives and widen your view of issues
  • You meet new people and possibly retain this connection after the group is over
  • You learn new strategies in a supportive environment

Talk To a Counsellor Without Committing

Many therapists have a free phone or in-person consultation option before a first appointment and is really an awesome opportunity for you to ask questions about counselling and get an initial sense of the counsellor to see whether you feel comfortable them. At the end of this conversation, some folks want to make an appointment but others are either not sure or definitely don’t. The counsellor should never pressure you to make a decision during a consultation. Think about your conversation and how it felt to you. Call more than one counsellor. See how your emotional responses were similar or different. This can be a key step in moving forward with the decision to pursue counselling.

Possible results? You could feel more clear, engaged and happier in your life!