Counselling: Picture Perfect?

It can be common to approach counselling thinking that one has to present a curated image—the kind of image we might pull out when company’s coming over. We might fear that the counsellor might judge us if we show our humanity, particularly our pain, or we might even stigmatize ourselves if we show aspects of ourselves that we don’t like in a counselling session, particularly if they diverge from a preferred image of ourselves that we would like to project to the world.

Image-management, in a counselling setting, can take on several guises. I thought it might be interesting to explore these, identify some pitfalls and look later at some alternatives, to help you get the most out of your counselling experience.

Event Coordinator?

It’s no exaggeration that for some of us, a first counselling session is an event. One of the most common questions I receive from first-time counsellees is “what am I supposed to say?” Further discussion often reveals fears of having to lead or direct the counselling session, followed by relief when provided with the feedback that therapists are trained to ask good questions to assist clients to open up about their concerns in a meaningful way.

Some of you reading this may protest and recall that a previous therapist was very non-directive, perhaps even to the point of asking very few questions. Yes, this can happen, and for some can be a very helpful counselling approach, however I don’t see this method used as commonly amongst therapists these days, particularly in Vancouver. If you’re worried about this therapeutic possibility, be sure to take advantage of the free consultations that many counsellors offer before starting counselling, where you can ask this question.

A Gracious Guest?

Sometimes we worry so much about what to say in a counselling session that we default to polite, responding to the questions we’re asked but not venturing off-script. We may worry that we’re speaking out of turn or supposed to be only responding to the counsellor’s questions; if you have things that you would like to focus on in your session, or goals that you want to collaborate with your counsellor about, however, it’s good to speak up! In fact, the willingness to speak up can be one of the major determinants of success in therapy.

A Good Host?

In another scenario, there are clients who worry that they need to attend to the counsellor’s needs, which is sometimes an extension of a long-term pattern of people-pleasing or childhood adaptation to trauma. While I recognize that counsellors are human beings not caricatures, and a climate of mutual respect is very important, it is not the client’s role to look after the counsellor’s emotional needs. I believe that all counsellors have an ethical responsibility to take care of themselves so that they can effectively counsel others.

While we may have had to caretake others growing up, in order to survive difficult or traumatic family situations, however the counselling session remains an opportunity to reverse old, survival patterns and convert them to new, healthier ones.

A New Menu

So let’s say that you’ve mentally moved ahead to the point that you are no longer pressuring yourself to play the ‘perfect client’ part and are attending your counselling session with less self-imposed pressure. You may have made this mental shift sometime before the start of session one, midway through your therapy or even before a change to a new therapist. Regardless of where you are in your counselling journey, you are ready to dive in.

After patting yourself on the back (two bonus points for openness and willingness) you would like things to flow.

Top Tips

While you may want to add or delete items from this list, here are my recommendations for a more engaged, non-performative counselling experience.

  • Invest in Therapeutic Fit – there is no denying it: the right fit between client and therapist is crucial in determining success in therapy. This is, however, not something to be perfectionistic about as there is seldom only one right combination of client and therapist. It is common for clients to have had several good therapists over the years and restricting yourself to the perfect one can put a lot of pressure on the therapeutic relationship.
  • Collaborate – While there are some folks who truly do prefer a therapist with a more parental vibe, there is great value in finding a counsellor who can collaborate with you about your therapeutic journey. Collaboration can include both client and therapist asking questions, identifying options and pathways and the client voicing whether ideas are helpful or not.
  • Lean Into The Wonder – If a trusting therapy relationship exists, sometimes it can be very enlightening to temporarily let go of pre-determined goals, objectives and expectations, and see how the therapy session develops. While the therapist continues to ask questions, sometimes in such scenarios we as clients may learn about parts of ourselves that are seldom explored and have the potential to help us make some significant internal shifts.
  • Tag Your Inner Storyteller – As we engage in a self-reflective experience like counselling, we often become more adept at spotting internal dialogue that previously ran without interruption. It can be helpful when we notice that we are “telling ourself stories.” When we’re aware that this is happening, we can then make a decision about whether we believe them or not or alternatively, whether we may want to try something new (which is where ‘lean into the wonder’ can come in with therapy).
  • Speak Up if Unhappy – Many times clients are so polite that therapists never know if the client was unhappy with some aspect of their therapy experience. Sometimes the truth does not even come out if asked directly by the counsellor (if the counsellor suspects something is up) or even when given a session rating questionnaire. Sharing feedback with the counsellor has the potential to turn the session around in profoundly helpful ways and presents the opportunity to resolve your concerns, in a live forum. Because of confidentiality restrictions, online channels do not offer the option of meaningful dialogue about specific situations.
  • Be Vulnerable – This can be a challenging one, particularly if one has had life experiences where trust has been broken in significant ways. Trust builds over time, and if you get to the point where you feel safe enough to be more emotionally vulnerable and transparent with your counsellor, you can then pursue therapy that speaks to your truth and explore goals that reflect where you truly want to head.