I was recently reflecting on the different approaches used by counsellors in their initial consultation session. For the client this first meeting may be massively anxiety-provoking. Perhaps they have only communicated with their potential therapist beforehand via email or text and are so filled with things to say that everything rushes out at once!
It has to be said that first meeting can often leave you feeling as though you are going on a blind date!
I come from a counselling background of mandatory form filling, monitoring, and evaluation and often found myself abandoning organisations’ protocol in order to really listen and engage with the person sat right in front of me. Although there is certainly importance in building up a bigger picture of my client’s difficulties I often feel the approach of, “please answer questions 1, 2 and 3” could mean that the real answer gets entirely overlooked. That is, if I try to direct you to what I think might give me insight, we might end up setting off in the wrong direction!
What can I expect in my initial consultation? What do I say and do?!
Since that first meeting is usually slightly shorter I would recommend going in with a broad overview of your difficulties. Remember, it doesn’t matter if you forget anything important in the initial session- there are no right or wrong answers. Therapists are not like doctors and we aren’t listening out for a list of ‘symptoms’ in order to medically ‘diagnose’ you and prescribe a form of ‘treatment’. The process is more about working with your feelings and getting to the root of your problems.
Feel free to come prepared (carry a list of questions and ideas if that helps) so that your therapist can help clarify things for you. A good therapist should be happy to answer any questions relating to their experience, qualifications and practice and you will be able to get a ‘feel’ for them too. Does it feel right? Do you feel comfortable with them? Do you feel unsure or rushed? Are they open or defensive, warm or clinical? Do you feel valued or unimportant? These are all incredibly valid gut reactions which can help inform your decision as to whether you’d like to work with them going forward.
What are your goals? How will you know when you’re finished in therapy?
It’s a good idea to have at least a vague notion of what this might be for example: I’d like to feel more confident, I want a better relationship with my partner, I’d like to feel less angry. By understanding and setting some goals it can help to steer the process but remember – sometimes clients come into the therapy room thinking they want to address one issue and as the layers peel back they realise the issue was really something else all along! I review regularly with all my clients to see if they feel on-track and are happy with our progress. One important thing to note is that sometimes it can feel as though you are ‘stuck’ in therapy- like you’ve hit a glass ceiling and things feel stagnant. That’s something to discuss together and can actually bring up very valuable material- it certainly doesn’t mean ‘it isn’t working!’
Find out about the process.
In my consultation sessions I might talk a little bit about our boundaries, confidentiality, session arrangements and frequencies, note-taking and ethical policy. As there is no obligation to sign up on the day I give all my potential clients a copy of my standard counselling agreement to take away and read carefully- if they wish to come back they can complete and return it on the first agreed session where we will revisit it and make sure it is understood clearly.
Be yourself! Warts ‘an all!
This isn’t a job interview and you don’t have to do anything other than be yourself. I have had many clients who ‘prepare’ or ‘rehearse’ what they plan to say in a session, only to realise that all that goes out the window when you’re deeply in the moment! Take some deep breaths before you come in and try to relax as much as you can- we’re here to help you, not make you feel worse! Be as honest, open and authentic as you are comfortable being- that will go a long way in moving the process along- and above all, trust in the process.
Good luck with finding the right therapist for you.