Counselling Homework: Shame Magnet or Road to Success?

Counselling homework. The mere mention of it sends shivers up some people’s spines. Why then does an activity that many therapists feel so positive about send some clients on a journey of anger, obligation, guilt and/or shame?

I recognize that there are therapists who in reading this would reflect, “I never give my clients homework,” because the therapies they use don’t support a model which includes homework. Psychoanalysis would be an example of this. Fair enough. There are, however, other therapies where homework is a key part of the counselling process; cognitive behavioural therapy, for example.

Counselling Homework – What Is It?

A curious question, perhaps, particularly to someone who has never been to therapy or been assigned homework in a counselling session. The short answer is, “it depends.”  The choice of homework can be influenced by the therapy the counsellor is using, his or her experience with a particular issue, and even the counsellor’s personality. Ultimately, though, the choice of homework should be firmly rooted in the needs of the client.

Some examples of counselling homework include:

  • Journalling or other forms of self-reflection
  • Readings
  • Written or body-based exercises (for example, relaxation training)
  • Trying new things, engaging in new experiences, including but not limited to social or leisure options
  • Structured therapy exercises such as systematic desensitization
  • Having conversations with particular people or rehearsing important conversations
  • Making lifestyle changes such as changing dietary choices, increasing physical activity or attending to physical health needs
  • Increasing community involvement or volunteering
  • Researching particular topics or community resources and following through

Why Give Homework?

Many of us have very negative memories of homework in grade school or university. We may associate such memories with obligation, drudgery, or worse, it might spark feelings of inadequacy or perfectionism. Why would a counsellor supposedly want to send their clients into such potentially tumultuous mental territory?

Truth be told, only a fraction of personal change actually occurs in the therapy room. Clients can vastly accelerate their progress by ‘trying out’ what they are learning in the the counselling office in their daily lives. Not to mention, ‘working one’s therapy’ in the outside world also potentially saves clients a significant chunk of change that would have been otherwise dedicated to therapy.

Did You Do Your Homework? – A Trap for Client and Therapist

One of the most awkward questions for both client and therapist is “did you do your homework?” It tends to elicit vast quantities of client guilt and in some cases, counsellor guilt for asking a question that triggered this emotional state. Plus, it’s natural not to like being put on the spot!

How then does this important conversation take place? Typically I’ll say, “last time we discussed….did that pan out?” Ideally, the client will take the initiative and raise the topic themselves. I say “ideally,” because it goes a long way to taking the defensiveness out of the situation and demonstrates that the client is taking ownership of his or her therapy process.

I Did My Homework!

It can be very gratifying for therapists when a client comes prepared to the session with progress they have made on their goals. It’s thrilling to see people grow and change! What are some of the advantages of doing homework in-between sessions? I’ve alluded to a few reasons, above. Homework can…

  • Accelerate progress and create headway with goals
  • Offer life experiences that complement or reinforce what is being learned in the counselling room
  • Save money, allowing clients to move through the counselling process more quickly
  • Create new experiences that change how we view ourselves and our situation
  • Assist clients to recognize that they are an active agent in their change process; creates feelings of empowerment
  • Keep therapy from getting ‘stuck’

But…conscientiously completing counselling homework can have a dark side. Yes, it’s true. Some possible consequences:

  • Homework can a vehicle for people-pleasing, particularly if a person has a history of this already
  • Homework can reinforce perfectionistic or obsessive tendencies
  • Homework can overwhelm a person with shame, particularly if they have had school related-trauma in the past or intensely unpleasant past experiences around being evaluated by others
  • Homework can feel overly controlling for some folks with abuse or trauma backgrounds, perhaps even triggering emotional flashbacks or intense anger
  • The assignment can be miscalculated – i.e. not right for the client’s needs, resulting in a frustrating on unproductive experience

In such cases not doing homework could actually be the right thing and would, at least, make for an important topic to bring up with your counsellor.

I Didn’t Do My Homework

Believe it or not, it’s actually more common for counselling clients not to do homework, than to complete it as discussed in the session, although, most of the time, just a discussion of homework options or plan acts as a catalyst to get clients thinking productively about their goals, and in many cases, taking independent steps that they have authored. Frequently, this is even more beneficial than what a therapist suggests because it comes from the client themselves. They’re owning it. And that, my friends, is truly awesome.  This is not to say that independent thinkers don’t sometimes get off track, but even the off-trackness can be a discussion point that leads to identifying more options and alternatives.

So…not doing homework isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Finding the Balance

Deciding which option works best for you–whether it be homework or homeworklessness–can spark self-reflection around what you want out of counselling. Here’s to self-empowerment!