Your therapist will help you explore your thoughts, feelings and behaviours so you can develop a better understanding of yourself and of others.
A counsellor will not give you their opinions or advice or prescribe medication. They will help you find your own solutions – whether that’s making effective changes in your life or finding ways of coping with your problems.
What happens in counselling
Counselling can take different forms depending on your needs and what type of therapy may be suitable.
Most therapy takes place in planned, regular sessions which last for around 50 minutes. How often you see your therapist and how many appointments you have will depend on your individual circumstances, and will be agreed between you and your therapist.
You might see a counsellor on your own, as a couple or family, or in a group with people who have similar issues. You might meet them face to face in their home, offices or clinic, or talk to them online or over the telephone.
During a session, your therapist may take you through specific exercises designed to help with your problem, or you might have more general discussions about how you're feeling. What you talk about will vary depend on what you want help with and the therapist’s approach. It could include:
- your relationships
- your childhood
- your feelings, emotions or thoughts
- your behaviour
- past and present life events
- situations you find difficult
Your therapist will be impartial but understanding. They will listen to you without judgment and help you explore your thoughts and emotions. They may offer information, but they won’t tell you what you should think or do.
What to expect in your first counselling session
Each counsellor has their own way of starting therapy but a first session should always cover:
- Introductions Your therapist should spend a few minutes introducing themselves and explaining how they work. You can ask them about their qualifications and experience, your therapy or anything you’re not sure about. Your therapist will want to make sure you feel at ease by sorting out basic things like where you would like to sit, and whether you use first names or are more formal.
- Assessment Your therapist may ask you if you would like to give a history of the problems you’re experiencing. They might want you to complete some forms, or go through information they’ve received about you, such as a letter from your GP. Or they may just ask you to ‘tell your story’. It’s important that you feel you’ve had the opportunity to tell the therapist about what’s troubling you.
- Contracting Your therapist should agree the terms, or contract with you, about how they will provide their services. This may be either a verbal agreement or a printed document for you both to sign.
This first session is important for making sure that you feel comfortable with your therapist and their way of working. You don’t have to continue with a therapist if you can’t relate to them or don’t feel safe.
How to get the most out of your therapy
You’ll get the best results from your therapy if you’re open and honest with your therapist and say how you’re really feeling.
Your relationship with your therapist is very important. If you’re to work effectively together, you should feel safe and able to take risks by disclosing and discussing sensitive issues. That includes being able to give them honest feedback on how you feel about your therapy and how you’re working together.
There are many different types of therapist and therapy, so if you’re unsure about your therapist or their approach, you can look for another one.
Boundaries in counselling
Boundaries are agreed limits or rules which protect both the client and the therapist. They set a formal structure, purpose and standards for the therapy and the relationship between you.
Boundaries include both practical details, such as providing clear, professional arrangements for appointments, fees or contact between sessions, and ethical considerations such as remaining impartial, focusing on your needs and maintaining an appropriate relationship.
Your relationship with your counsellor will be a professional one. They will not be a personal friend and, depending on their way of working, may share little personal information about themselves. You will not meet or have any contact, as far as possible, outside of your therapy sessions or when your therapy has finished.
The aim of boundaries is to create a relationship where you feel safe, comfortable and able to talk about your experiences or feelings, even if they seem taboo, frightening or embarrassing.
Confidentiality in counselling
Confidentiality is key to building trust between a counsellor and a client. Your therapist will listen to you in confidence and will not tell anyone else what you say. They won’t discuss you with your GP, employer, family, friends or anyone else without your consent.
However, there are certain circumstances when they may have to pass on information about you. These include:
- if they believe you or other people are in danger
- if they’re required to do so by law
- when referring you to another healthcare professional for help
- when discussing their work with their therapeutic supervisor (this is standard practice)
Any such disclosures will usually be made with your knowledge and consent, but your counsellor may not always be able to ask you first. You should discuss this with your therapist and agree on the limits of confidentiality for your work together.