Many therapists have spent thousands of hours researching psychology, understanding people and their motivations and working with individual cases. As a patient, you come into the process cold and often need to navigate complex psychology concepts relevant to your life in realtime with no training whatsoever. This post is dedicated to providing you with some practical tools so that you can maximise each session that you sit with a counsellor.
Top tips for getting the most out of your counselling therapy
Take your time: Usually, sessions are set just under an hour, this gives the counsellor time to prepare for the next session and / or deal with the admin required in sustaining clients. The thing is that you are paying for that hour so be on-time or a bit before time and if the therapist allows you in a bit earlier great! Arriving 10 minutes before a session will also give you some time to reflect and clear your mind and collect your thoughts before the session.
It is your counsellor’s duty to manage the open and close of the session time, however, it’s up to you to bring up the session the stuff that is going to help you most. So be punctual or early and dive right into the stuff you need to get to with a clear mind.
Part of your life: When you accept therapy as being a component to your day to day life (at least for a while) you will rapidly get to a state of what works best for you. If you look at therapy as a disruption to your day to day life it drags out the process of treatment. Remember therapy is basically just talking about your stuff. Human beings need to talk about their stuff and “get it off their chest” so to speak. Once you accept that you need to do talk therapy to build a better version of yourself, then it is far easier to accept the concepts and process of therapy as a valuable tool in your personal growth. The real magic of therapy seldom happens in talk therapy sessions.
The sessions simply highlight the things you need to take into consideration outside of each session. In daily life is where the magic of therapy actually starts to work and where you need it most. So look at therapy as a fact-finding exercise of the mind that you can explore and practice outside of the session.
Journal Notes: Therapy can be emotionally charged and with emotional charges comes confusion. Often it is worth noting or journaling the stuff that came up in each session as a log from which you can reflect. When you follow a personal process of documenting your thoughts and feelings you will begin to gain deeper insights into the core mechanics that drive you as a person.
Documenting the therapy outcomes forces you also apply the mediated feedback from your counsellor to your logic and line up what makes sense to you and what you can practically apply to your life.
Trust and Congruence: Ok so this person is sitting and listening to all your deep stuff, but are they? In order for you to feel safe and comfortable with divulging the stuff that truly affects you, you need to be able to trust your counsellor and trust them implicitly. If you are holding back and mediating your conversation, skirting around the issues then you essentially prolonging your healing process.
They say “trust is earned” and this is very true.
The first few sessions you will be sizing up the therapist and in the back of your mind making the most important decisions as to whether or not you are actually going to share your deeply guarded intimate secrets that are holding your life back. The problem here is that if you don’t build this trust upfront then you are wasting your time and your money on therapy that will not get you to where you need to go.
What you must understand about trusting a therapist is that these people have heard it all before. They are trained to have non-judgemental viewpoints of people and their life issues. This training is focused on helping you sort through your chaos. The actual events are not material to the treatment, what is material is your ability to voice those issues and to begin sorting through them.
Their job is to help you sort your stuff and when that job is done counsellors have achieved their core objectives.
What do you want and what are you feeling? Therapy and healing is mostly about bringing into line your thoughts and feelings however it is very useful if you bring objectives into each session. Not only does it provide the conversation platform but it also gives you personal goals for what you want to get out of each of your therapy sessions. Asking yourself before each session “what do I want here” and “what am I feeling” are important questions of self-reflection. Example: “I am feeling overwhelmed by my life and I think it has to do with the self-worth issues that came up in the last session”, “today I want to know what I can do to feel less helpless and work on my ability to handle present stressful events”.
Therapy sessions follow no format other than timekeeping. So bring into the session the stuff that is important to your immediate goals and you can always circle back to past trauma in another session if that is not what is tripping you up right now. Present feelings are very important and keeping them in check will enable you to clear the stage for the deeper work.
Your time, ask anything: You are paying for a mediated feedback from a trained registered counselling professional that is non-judgemental and is not part of your day to day drama. Damn straight you can and should ask them anything that you think will give you answers to your life. A counsellors role is not to just passively sit back, nod their head, take notes and occasionally pipe in with a “how does that make you feel” cliché.
No, they are there to give you guidance and support and actively participate in helping to resolve your life issues. So ask why, ask how and ask when.
So use this time to get that mediated feedback and if you are not getting value from their answers then stop wasting your time and money and find a new counsellor.
Healthy boundaries: You are seeing a professional counsellor for one purpose and that purpose is to fix you into a better version of yourself. Understand that your counsellor’s role is to help you achieve that very same objective. Counsellors are not a friend or a family member nor are they potential mate or sex partner. Your counsellor is a human being that is being paid to help you get better.
Confusing as it may be at times, patients and counsellors must respect the nature of their relationship to be founded around clinical best practice and should in no way socialise or intervene outside of the context of a professional relationship. Social interactions outside of therapy are not clinically appropriate and can severely detract from the therapeutic care process.
If your counsellor starts mentioning boundaries, be aware that you may be overstepping them and that in your best interests you should unreservedly adhere to their guidance and direction for your own wellbeing.
Check in: Relationships are complicated at the best of times particularly ones that involve highly emotive topics. Spend a few minutes every so often to get some consensus on how you are feeling about the therapeutic relationship with your counsellor in light of the things you have spoken about to-date.
Change direction: Nothing is set in stone, one session you may be pouring out over your dysfunctional relationship with your parents and in the next session you could be dealing with the mean things your boss said to you at work that day. So be open to the fact that therapy is dynamic and that the direction of your progress may take many new twists and turns that you may not have expected.
What do you mean by that? Typically counsellors have spent years researching and identifying and naming and have a different universe of psychology babble and jargon swimming around in their heads. Sometimes they (being human beings) make the mistake of referencing words or concepts that are jargonised and make absolutely no sense to the uninitiated.
If you don’t understand something that your therapist has said to you then simply ask them to explain it to you. Often a professional counsellor will be able to reduce their jargon statements into more practical analogies or stories that make more sense to casual observers sitting in the patient’s chair.
Deep dive: If you have spent a few sessions skirting around meaningless issues then it is time you put on your swimsuit and stepped onto the diving board. Ask yourself what are you avoiding talking about? Then start the conversation there. Denial is a perfectly natural and relevant response, we use it to avoid the pain of coming to terms with our horrific past events. So what are you denying, what are you hiding from and what scares you most to talk about? Trust that your therapist is there to non-judgementally support you, guide you and mediate. But you can’t spend your life staring at the pool through binoculars if you want to learn to swim.
Be open to your personal change: Hey this is why you are here in the first place. Personal growth is not some fluffy teddy that you pick up after a few sessions at your therapist. Resilience is formed by challenging your beast and learning to tame it into a more manageable house pet. This process involves personal change and that change what will be what will drive you forward for the rest of your life. So embrace it and move with it when it comes.
End well: Counselling therapy will always be there for you if you need it, but once you have reached your personal goals then it is time to start living your life again and perhaps incorporating therapy on an ad-hoc basis if and when you need it. If you have walked a path with a therapist then you will have a go-to person and keeping them in your loop or have a good referral to a counsellors that will be in a better position to help you.
At the end of the day, this is a journey that is intended for you. Hopefully, these tips have provided a sound strategy that will enable you to achieve the necessary breakthroughs you need in your life.
Recovery Direct Treatment Centre
The Cape Town Based Recovery Centre focuses on applying evidence-based therapy in a multidisciplinary counselling team using registered counsellors and qualified therapists. The centre is based in the tranquil suburb of Constantia that provides both outpatient and in-patient and remote online training.