Counseling can be very effective for many people who want to address issues that are holding them back, overcome their anxiety, gain greater self-awareness and make life-changing improvements. During COVID-19 pandemic most of us got stuck at our home. Unfortunately, this does not mean that our anxieties, relationship problems, stress, and bad habits suddenly disappear. The pandemic and the economic crisis we are all witnessing only acts as additional triggers for existing mental health problems and, in many cases, create entirely new challenges for us and our loved ones.
If you’ve never had counseling before, you might not know what to expect. You might be having some misunderstandings about what counseling is and how it works. If you’re spending precious time and money on counseling, you probably want to get as much out of it as possible. These counseling tips and advice can help you get the most out of counseling services.
1. Be open and honest
Be open and honest with your counselor. Holding back information and avoiding painful issues would make it very difficult for your counselor to help you. It may be scary at first to open up about certain things, or to admit to certain problems, but it will help you in the long run.
Therapy is the one area where you don’t have to keep your feelings bottled up. Allow yourself to express your feelings if something makes you irritated or upset. The fact that your counselor is not involved in other areas of your life, and that your communication is confidential by law, should make it easier to open up.
2. Take an active part in the therapy process
It is important that you see therapy as a collaborative process, where you and your counselor work together. The work that you do in therapy is an internal type of work that happens inside you… somewhere that only you have access (your thoughts, feelings, decisions, etc.).
Your counselor can help you understand what is going on inside you, why you feel what you feel, why you do what you do, and what your options are for coping and for improving things. They can also offer emotional support while you work through these things. But you are the only person who can actually decide how you will use those insights, principles, or ideas. You are in charge of your life, and ultimately you need to make your own decisions and/or changes.
In other words, don’t just passively wait for the counselor to “fix” you. One way to take an active part in the therapy process is to think ahead about what you’d like to focus on in your next session, or what you’d like to get out of it, and to tell your counselor.
3. Confidentiality and Privacy
Confidentiality in therapy creates a safe space for patients to talk about without fear. When someone seeks counseling from a therapist, it is critical that they trust their counselor so that they can speak freely and openly about their concerns. The understanding that their feelings, emotions, and sayings can be trusted with the therapist may enable for more in-depth study of areas of experience that are particularly unpleasant or shameful.
If you are at home and others can hear you – even trusted loved ones – you may not be able to communicate with the same level of authenticity with your therapist. This is a central aspect of therapy, so make sure you get some privacy by dedicating time and space without distractions or audience. You may even want to make an explicit request to your loved ones to help you respect the time dedicated to your mental health. Some of our clients have shared with us their strategies of sitting in their car or taking a walk with their therapist on the other end of the phone.
4. Do your homework
If you and your counselor set a specific goal for the week, or agree to have you do a specific exercise or worksheet, then do your best to follow through. If you don’t, then make sure to discuss what got in the way. With most skills, practice is essential. For example, relaxation skills take many repetitions before they become effective. Recognizing and challenging negative thinking takes a lot of practice, practice, practice. Also, changing communication patterns doesn’t happen overnight.
Preparing notes on what you want to talk about and what you intend to achieve in therapy can be beneficial, whether you’re working on modifying a behavior, thinking about future goals, dealing with depression or anxiety symptoms, or dealing with other challenges. It’s also a good idea to write down any concerns or questions you have about therapy ahead of time so you can address them before starting. Homework helps you apply what you discussed to your day-to-day life.
5. Work on yourself between sessions, even if it’s not assigned for homework
Much of therapy work should happen between sessions. Look for opportunities to implement new ideas, suggestions, techniques, and options. Then you can use your sessions to process your efforts. Also, when counseling helps you to reach insights about your life and where certain dynamics come from, watch for how those dynamics continue to play out in your day to day life. Then you can use your sessions to process what you observed. Don’t wait for your therapist to tell you what to do, take the initiative.
6. Don’t get too focused on the negative
Working on your problems can cause you to focus more than usual on the difficulties in life… the things that are not going well. Therefore it is important to intentionally remind yourself of the things that you do have, the things that you are doing well with, and the things that are going right. You have strengths… don’t overlook those. Recognizing your strengths can give you something to build on.
7. Stay brave
Keep in mind that therapy is not just an easy “feel good” process. It takes courage. Sometimes you may experience painful emotions, remember painful memories, face painful truths, or even reconsider some of your previously held beliefs. You might also choose to confront problematic circumstances or relationship dynamics while in therapy, which could be difficult (despite often being necessary).
Sometimes things get harder before they get easier. Knowing that this is a normal part of therapy can help you to persevere through the rough parts. Remember to let your therapist know if you ever feel overwhelmed by the work you are doing in counseling. Find the right pace for yourself.
Read also: 9 “Harmless” Habits That Fuel Your Anxiety
8. Give your counselor feedback
Talk about it if you disagree with your counselor. Let them know if you feel that therapy is not addressing what’s most important to you, or if you want to change anything about the counseling itself. Sometimes people are hesitant to give their counselor feedback, because the counselor is “the expert.”
A counselor may indeed be an expert on psychology and coping, however, you are the expert on yourself. If you don’t share your concerns or preferences about counseling, then the counselor won’t be aware of them. Even if your counselor disagrees with you, it is important that you communicate about such things openly.
9. Ask for a referral if necessary
If you feel that your current counselor is not a good match for you, or if you just don’t think you’re getting what you need, then it’s okay to ask for a referral. We are trained professionals, we know we’re not going to click with everybody, and we should know not to take this personally.
Don’t stay in a counseling relationship that is not working for you just because you don’t want to hurt your counselor’s feelings. What’s most important is that you get the help you need. Don’t let a negative experience with counseling stop you from seeking help elsewhere. Different counselors will approach things a little (sometimes very) differently.
10. Don’t get overly dependent
It is important that you not become overly dependent on your therapist or on the counseling process. For example, although sometimes you may want to discuss something in therapy before making a decision, don’t always put off dealing with things until your session.
Practice handling situations independently. The idea is to work toward a time when you don’t need a counselor anymore. Let your counselor know when you think you’re approaching that time, so that you can prepare together for you to cope once counseling ends.
11. Supplement Your Therapy
In addition to the above, you can also supplement your therapy in a variety of ways. Psychotropic medications can be particularly helpful, especially if you are so overwhelmed with symptoms that you can’t effectively implement ideas talked about in counseling. Self-help reading is a great source of guidance. Journaling can be a great way to reflect on things by yourself, or to release pent up emotions.
Logging about your efforts has been shown to improve the likelihood that you will succeed at making changes. Other supportive relationships are important to maintain and develop. And developing a healthy and balanced lifestyle can help you to improve emotional stability (e.g.: balanced nutrition, exercise, pacing, sleep, medical care, and avoidance of substance abuse).
If your therapist is serious about doing a good job, he or she will want to hear from you if you have concerns about how therapy is progressing.. It’s much better to name a conflict and face it head-on, rather than pretend you’re going to follow advice you don’t respect. Therapists and their clients should generally agree on the goals of therapy, but it’s also beneficial to have open and honest discussions about how to get there.
Research suggests that it is helpful for a client to bring up when a therapist has said or done something that hurt them, or misinterpreted a situation. Not only will these conversations improve the therapeutic relationship, but they are also good practice for resolving conflict in the real world.