You may already know that counseling is different from any other kind of professional or personal relationship. But it’s pretty easy to be confused about what counseling looks like in real life, thanks to a lot of unrealistic Hollywood portrayals of counselors and therapists.
I’d like to offer some insight into what counseling means and how it can help people address problems or reach their personal goals. Here are my responses to some of the most common questions about what therapy is like.
What exactly does a counselor do? Are you going to just listen to me talk about feelings or give me advice about my problems?
That all depends on your preference and what type of issues you’re focusing on, but I generally try to take an active role in helping my clients. This usually means that I ask a lot of questions and encourage people to talk about their entire experience, including thoughts, emotions, sensations, beliefs, ideas, and so on. I offer interpretations, information, and suggestions. If someone really wants advice, I am happy to try to provide specific guidance in decision-making, but I make it clear whether the advice is coming from personal experience or professional expertise.
Is a counseling session like what I see on TV or in the movies? Will I have to tell you about my childhood?
Most media portrayals of counselors, therapists, or psychologists show either someone who is reserved and formal, or someone who is very emotionally intense. Personally, I tend to be casual and easy to connect with. I try to balance emotional intensity with a lot of humor and jokes. People often expect counselors to just nod their heads, look concerned, and say things like “And how does that make you feel?” or “Tell me more about that.” I certainly say those things sometimes, but I’m also very active in the session, asking pointed questions, exploring ideas, and offering my insights. I also provide information about how the mind works and teach mindfulness techniques that clients can use in their lives outside of the therapy office. You won’t necessarily have to talk about your childhood or past relationships, although it can be helpful to look at those experiences to notice patterns.
How is counseling different from just confiding in a friend? Why should I pay someone to listen to me talk?
With a counselor, unlike with a friend, you don’t have to worry about “being too needy” or being judged. You don’t have to worry about whether you’re hogging the conversation or not being a good friend. You don’t have to worry about whether your secrets are going to become gossip—a counselor is required by law to protect confidentiality. Counselors also have advanced training and clinical experience in identifying what is healthy vs. unhealthy, “normal” vs. abnormal. As a counselor, I have years of practice in specific ways of listening, empathizing, and caring, and I can teach you concrete tools that you can use to relieve suffering and create lasting change in your life. I may also give you something to work on between sessions, whether it’s a book to read, a new behavior to try, or just something to think about.
Am I required to be really motivated and have it all together before I can be in counseling?
I really enjoy working with clients who are highly motivated and ready to do the work that their goals require. I have some clients who are like that, and we make good progress together. But not all my clients are in that position right away, and that’s okay. As long as you’re willing to be honest with yourself and with me, I can help you. Part of my role is to help you find what motivates you to make progress on your goals. I help my clients understand themselves and their challenges more clearly by seeing the fears, needs, and unacknowledged desires that hold them back. I help them see the choices they have to make and the sacrifices those choices involve. When they’re ready, I have tools and techniques to help them get through the hard parts of those changes. But it all depends on their readiness and willingness to do the work.
Who decides what the therapeutic goals are, me or you? How soon will I start to see improvement in my problems?
Counseling is always collaborative with me. I’m happy to work with clients toward almost any goal. When I make suggestions, it is always based on what the client has already told me about what they want. How long it takes to achieve goals depends entirely on the goals themselves and your readiness for change to happen. I’ve had clients show improvement or noticeable progress almost immediately, and I’ve had clients for whom it takes months to begin moving toward their goal. But almost everyone feels better in some way within the first couple of sessions. When you are with someone who listens well and truly cares about your concerns, you will feel more confident and less alone.
Do I have to tell you my entire life story the first time I meet you? What should I do to prepare for the first counseling session?
You will be in control of what you share during our first meeting, keeping in mind that it’s helpful for me to understand the context of your concerns. I want to know about your motivations, your hopes, your needs, and the things that have so far been holding you back. I’ll also be asking questions about your fears and concerns related to the counseling process, and about things that might make it difficult for us to make progress together. To prepare for the first meeting, I encourage you to think about what you want to get out of our work together. When the work is finished, how will you be different? How will life feel different? What are you hoping that our work together will accomplish that you haven’t been able to achieve on your own? What is motivating you to make these changes now?
Will I be able to tell right away if you’re the right counselor for me? What happens if one of us thinks it isn’t a good fit?
Yes, you’ll know very quickly if I am the right counselor to work with you. It’s almost always obvious during the initial consult whether it’s a good fit, at least in terms of the relationship itself. On occasion it becomes clear after a few sessions that the client needs a practitioner with different skills or tools, and if happens, I try to help them find the right person to meet that need.
Will I have to do a ton of paperwork before we meet the first time?
I do a free consultation the first time I meet with a prospective client, and I will use this time to do a basic assessment of your needs and goals. During this first visit, I will also offer you a sense of who I am and how I’m going to approach your goal or problem. Between the consult and the first real session, I will ask you to fill out some paperwork that includes an intake questionnaire. The questionnaire gathers information about different parts of your life and helps me have a better sense of your general health, habits, relationships, interests, and other significant aspects of your life.
What would I gain from working with you specifically instead of another therapist? How are you different from other counselors in Denver?
I have an unusually varied background and life experience that enables me to build a relationship with my clients easily and quickly. Research shows that this relationship between the client and the therapist is the most important factor in making counseling effective. I’ve lived in a lot of different places, including overseas as a child, and interacted with people from many different cultures. I’ve also done a number of different things professionally over the course of my life. I adapt myself to my clients so that they feel comfortable, understood, and respected, regardless of whether they’re a CEO, a musician, or a plumber. I believe in the effectiveness of insight-based, motivational counseling that offers real tools for change.