Counselling: More Than Just Feeling Better?
It could be argued that one of the biggest challenges in making the decision to seek counselling is the desire to know how the counselling itself will make us feel. And we hope the answer is better! But, we don’t exactly know until we try, particularly for first-time counselling clients, and “better” does not accurately reflect the range of emotions that we can experience in response to counselling. People are diverse and their emotional responses to counselling are just as diverse.
Let Out a Sigh: A Big Relief
Relief may be one of the more common emotional responses to counselling, particularly in an initial session. Often, before a person enters therapy, there has been a build up of issues big enough for a person to seek counselling in the first place. It can be an incredible relief to finally lay that burden down and have another human being bear witness to everything that’s going on.
Feeling Heard and Understood
It should not come as a surprise that unpacking one’s thoughts, feelings and experiences is ideally accompanied by a sense of feeling heard and understood, but only if we perceive that the counsellor has done a good job of creating a safe emotional space, asking the right questions, and providing appropriate feedback.
Wipe Out: The Big Drain
For many counselling clients, emotional unpacking can be exhausting. If you suspect in advance this may happen for you, it can be helpful not to schedule anything after a counselling appointment—particularly an initial appointment— and take the time to engage in a quiet activity that will allow you to reflect on your experience, to do something kind and nurturing for yourself, or even to allow your mind to escape with an absorbing show or engaging book, for example.
Wishing for More
Sometimes it feels like the session flew by: where did the time go? This could produce a number of feelings, such as ease, wonderment, or even disappointment, especially if you didn’t entirely cover what you wanted to get through in your counselling session.
It can help to reflect on your objectives for a counselling session beforehand and to be realistic about the scope and number of issues compared with the amount of time you have. Usually one major issue or two less urgent concerns can take up a full 50-minute session (i.e. a “counselling hour”); some people prefer to book a longer session if they suspect that a counselling hour will not be sufficient. Most counsellors will have a clock within easy view; this is to help you (and the counsellor) pace the session.
Huh? I’m All Shook Up
There may be times when you leave a session feeling a mix of emotions you don’t understand. This happened to me during a session I attended as a counselling client. There could be a number of explanations: you could have encountered unknown or under-accessed thoughts or feelings, the counselling session may have gone in a direction you didn’t expect or even want, the counsellor may not have done an adequate job in summarizing the main themes of the session, or you may have not felt adequately understood during or after the counselling session. If you feel comfortable, address these feelings directly with your counsellor. There may be something that they can help clarify (such as their thoughts, words, or any actions they took) which ultimately may help you leave the counselling session on a better note.
Ouch! That was painful!
In your counselling session, you may have found yourself encountering feelings that were previously kept buried. The intensity of these can be unexpected. You may feel significant sadness, anger, grief, or other emotions. Please let your counsellor know if the counselling process is feeling too intense for you and you need to either stop a discussion or take a break. If this awareness isn’t obvious until after the session, bring it up at the start of your next counselling appointment.
We may be overwhelmed with a sense of urgency when we enter a counselling session, particularly if we are in crisis. It’s common to want quick relief. Sometimes expectations around this can include seeking tools and homework right away with the idea of speeding up the counselling process. Certainly, if homework is important to you, it’s important to choose a counsellor who is oriented in this way, although pacing the counselling process is equally important. If the counsellor does not understand your situation in depth, any suggestions they make will be generic and not necessarily applicable to your situation. In some situations, this may take up to a few sessions to get there.
Frustration: Progress Problems
There are times where therapy may feel frustrating. There may be a sense of lack of progress, stuckness or having gone as far as possible with the counsellor you have been working with. This sometimes occurs after you have been working with your therapist for a longer period of time. One option is to bring this up with your counsellor. They may be feeling that way too! Sometimes a conversation or clarification of therapy goals is enough to get things back on track. For others, it may be helpful to see a different mental health professional for a second opinion.
Not For Me
Attending one, or even a series of counselling sessions may be confirmation that counselling is not the right choice for you. Not everyone benefits from, or would even choose counselling; this is valid.
Meh…Not The Right Match
After a first session, or sometimes a second or third, we may have a sense of ambivalence or even “no”—a sense that the counsellor is not the right fit. This is okay and perfectly normal. Counsellors, as do clients, range widely in terms of personality, outlook and life experiences. Sometimes it’s not an ideal combination.
Renewal and Hope
My view is that counselling should be encouraging and inspire a sense that things can and do get better. Even if a particular situation can’t be changed due to factors beyond your control, ideally you should leave your counselling experience knowing that you have the skills to cope and ultimately thrive.
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