I have written posts previously about counseling myths, how to spot a bad counselor, and my “full immersion” approach to counseling (as a client). In this post I want to help you get through the first few weeks of counseling.
1. Celebrate what you have done, and keep at it
Once you have taken that step and called to make your first appointment, realize how far you have already come. Think how unwilling you probably were not long ago to even consider counseling, much less believe you actually might benefit from it! It is this openness that will be the main factor in the progress you will continue to make, and you have already seen it in action. Hang onto that openness.
2. Do your paperwork
I have heard people say, “I didn’t do anything in my first session but answer questions and fill out forms.” If a counselor mails or emails you some paperwork to do, do it as thoroughly and conscientiously as possible and bring it with you to the session. Consider asking if you can scan and email it to the counselor in advance. Attend to this formality and it will be more more likely that you will be able to jump quickly into what is bothering you, perhaps even in the first session. If your counselor insists on spending the first session or two on intake (questions, paperwork, your psychological and perhaps medical history, etc.), that is okay.
3. Follow through with your appointment
Expect that as the day of your first appointment draws closer, you will become more and more convinced that you don’t really need counseling at all. Whatever is bothering you may even stop bothering you for the last few days before your appointment. Do not be fooled by this. You probably already know to expect that as soon as you make an appointment with your family doctor, you will start to feel better and, knowing this you probably go anyway most of the time. So it should be with counseling. Make and keep that first appointment, no matter what. If something truly urgent comes up and you must cancel, have another date in mind when you call and set up the appointment again.
This may be the hardest one to do because it requires you to trust your therapist. Your natural tendency may be to assume you know more than the counselor. But if you have done your homework and found a good therapist, there will likely be things you are unaware of that will be obvious to the counselor within minutes of your first meeting. It isn’t magic, it’s simply having experience and knowing how to easily identify certain things.
Your therapist might suggest you see a medical doctor to rule out certain medical issues, or to get a doctor’s take on whether certain medications might be helpful, before getting underway with your therapy. If your counselor suggests this, make an appointment and go see your doctor. Just do it. Trust the process.
Remember, you are in counseling because whatever you have been doing to address your problem hasn’t been working. You are there specifically to do something different, to move in a direction that is not currently known to you, not at all clear to you, and that likely doesn’t even make sense to you right now. (Think long and hard about that one!) If everything your therapist says to you instantly makes complete sense, your therapist doesn’t know any more than you do, and you are wasting your time and money. You are paying him/her to turn your current understanding of things upside down. Count on this to not always be comfortable. Count on feeling frustrated with your therapist at times. But above all, keep counting on your therapist, assuming, as I have said, that you have done a good job finding a professional to begin with.
5. Give it time
I once had a client who angrily stormed into my office, plopped down in his chair, folded his arms, and said, “I don’t need any of this counseling stuff. You have two minutes to fix this problem and then I’m leaving. Now what can you tell me in two minutes that is going to fix this?” I replied, “Ummm, that perhaps unreasonable and unrealistic expectations are the problem? That I cannot help you fix in two minutes what took you thirty years to break?”
It will take time to fix your issue — a few weeks, a few months, maybe even a few years, depending on the problem and how severe and pervasive it is, how long you have lived with it, and your willingness to trust your therapist and work hard. Your therapist can give you a pretty good idea how long it might take. Don’t assume your therapist has a financial interest in keeping you there as long as possible. If your therapist is any good and has been around a while, they have a constant stream of referrals coming in and are turning people away constantly. Your therapist has a much greater interest in helping you address your problem as quickly as possible so you can go back into the community as one more satisfied client who will probably then send them ten clients or more over the next ten years.