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.
Denver counselor, therapist, and life coach, Gideon Killion, shares some thoughts about the ways our brains skew our thinking.
Like many people, on Friday I watched the inauguration of President Trump. And like many people, I am very much wondering what the next four years are going to be like.
Studying psychology and working as a counselor has changed the way I see politics, especially the way in which we, as a nation, seem to be so divided. (Actually, there is a good argument to be made that the US is made up of not one nation but several. If you’re curious, check out the book American Nations, by Colin Woodard.)
Our brains distort the way we perceive reality
Before, I would have blamed it purely on differences in issues and values, but now I believe that our divisions actually have a lot to do with something we all have in common — the fact that our brains distort the way we perceive reality.
These are called cognitive distortions, and we’re all susceptible to them. Here’s an example: once you form an opinion, your brain — without asking or telling you — starts looking for and emphasizing information that supports your position, and it starts discounting or ignoring evidence against it. This particular distortion is known as confirmation bias. Research shows that the more you care about an issue, the stronger this distortion is.
No-one is immune
We also all share an instinct for tribalism. We have a strong tendency to see the world in terms of us vs. them: to see the group with which we identify, whether it’s a political party, a religion, a nation, or a race, as good, and to see the others as bad.
When you combine tribalism with cognitive distortion, it’s no wonder that we so often and easily divide into Left and Right and wonder how the other side could possibly see the world so differently. And so we draw the conclusion that they must be stupid, misinformed, or ill-intentioned.
Heading into a new presidential era, my hope for my country is that more and more people will become aware of how all of our brains distort our perception of the world, particularly the things we care most about. I hope more people — myself included — will make a habit of looking for and challenging these distortions in our own thinking, not just in those of the people we disagree with.
Of course, being rather cynical, I’m not holding my breath.
But if you want to learn more about our tendency for irrationality and skewed perceptions, I highly recommend the excellent website and blog, You Are Not So Smart.
I would also recommend reading any of the following great books:
- Thinking Fast and Slow, , by Daniel Kahneman
- How We Decide, by John Lehrer
- Predictably Irrational, by Dan Ariely
- Stumbling on Happiness, by Daniel Gilbert
Ariely has some great Ted talks, here: https://www.ted.com/talks?sort=newest&q=dan+ariely
… as does Gilbert, here: https://www.ted.com/talks?q=dan+gilbert&sort=newest
… and Kahneman, here: https://www.ted.com/talks?q=kahneman&sort=newest
I would love to know what you think about this topic!
Gideon Killion, a therapist, coach, and counselor in Denver, Colorado, offers some thoughts about New Year’s resolutions that work.
It’s natural to feel drawn toward change and growth at this time of year. For many people, the New Year offers an opportunity to turn the page and have a fresh start.
But with all the advice out there about forming new habits, setting “SMART goals,” and motivating yourself, it can be confusing to know how to begin. I’d like to share an insight about how to shift behavior patterns. It’s my belief that New Year’s resolutions usually fall flat, not because we fail to try hard enough, but because the goals we’ve set are lacking adequate support. It helps to have intent as a support framework.
Trying to force a new outcome can feel like an uphill battle, unless you determine a specific intention to support your goal. That’s because goals are set in the future, but what actually gets you to that finish line is the choice you make right now, in each moment. Intent helps you to identify which choices of today will help you reach your future goal.
Another way of looking at intent is that it allows you to clarify your values. Goals define “what” you want to accomplish; intent helps you understand “why” (the motivation for change). Goals are detail-focused, but intent provides the big-picture view of how your goals will get you where you want to go.
So here’s an example:
Goal: I will write one chapter of my novel by January 21st.
Intent: I am embracing a daily writing practice.
See the difference? The intent, which is focused in the present, provides the framework and mindset that supports the goal, which is placed in the future.
With this distinction in mind, here is my practical advice for creating real change in your life.
1. Recognize that goals require sacrifices, and make your goal proportional to your willingness to endure sacrifice.
One of the most common mistakes people make with New Year’s resolutions is trying to go from zero to 60. Moving from inaction to full-on commitment is usually unsustainable because it’s just too painful to make the personal sacrifice required.
Using intention as a framework can help. If your goal is to do a cardio workout twice a week but you hate gyms, the personal sacrifice of submitting to an unpleasant environment may be too painful over the long term. Reflecting on the intent behind your goal can help you find a way to adjust the pain meter so that a smaller sacrifice is required. If your intent is “choosing to move more and sit less,” you could reconsider whether enduring the gym is the only way to get a cardio workout. What about playing Ultimate Frisbee with friends on Saturdays and going for a run with a friend on Thursdays?
2. Consider making a series of small achievable changes that together add up to something bigger.
Checking in with your intent every day can spark small changes that add up, over time, to a significant behavioral shift. The key is to focus on things that are easily achievable—just one step removed from what you’re already doing. In the case of “choosing to move more and sit less,” you might set a few related small goals that get you moving just a little more than before. If you’re famous for finding the closest possible parking spot, try parking one row over. Always take the elevator to the 4th floor? Decide that you’ll take the stairs to the 2nd floor and ride up from there. It’s true that one tiny change by itself doesn’t make much of a dent in your activity level. But several tiny changes can easily become new habits, and you can continue shifting your behavior in small increments until one day you find that you’ve made a major shift.
3. Don’t try to change behaviors without adjusting the supporting context.
When you try to create change in an environment that doesn’t support change, it won’t stick. The best way to address this problem is to come up with a structure for success—a plan that’s big enough to handle the change you want to make. The most effective plan will be one that anticipates setbacks and includes rewards for progress. That’s because you’re human: you will make mistakes, and you will be more committed to a plan that gives you positive feedback in the form of small rewards.
Scott Adams, the guy who created Dilbert, suggests that goals don’t produce changes, but rather systems do. For any goal he’s wanted to reach, he has put in place a system that is calculated to produce that result. I think “system” is an extension of intent—a thought-out plan for manifesting an intention on a consistent and in-the-moment basis.
And here’s the best part: when your resolution is based on a framework of intent, it’s more likely to produce beneficial and healthy changes even if you don’t reach the specific goal.
If you’re looking to create big or small changes in your life but aren’t sure how to take the next step, you might need a coach or counselor to walk you through it. Give me a call today, ask for a consult at one of my Denver locations, and learn more about how I can help.
I just found this great Tedx video, featuring Al Switzler, about how to actually make changes in life successfully.
Anyone who has tried to change something big in life — such as giving up a bad habit, or starting a good one — knows that it isn’t easy. There are a lot of reasons why this is the case, and a quick Google search will probably reveal plenty. But one thing that makes it harder is that we often do not see the whole picture. We do not see all the things that we get out of the status quo — things we would lose if change actually happened.
A while back, I was working with a couple in marriage counseling. The big problem in this couple’s relationship was the male partner’s alcohol addiction. His wife wanted him to quit drinking, and he said he wanted to quit, too. Yet over and over, she discovered that he had been drinking and lying about it. We met a number of times, talking about wounds from his past, poor self-esteem, and so on, but after a while, it became clear that under the surface, probably unconsciously, he did not want to change. Promising to change but not actually doing it was actually working well for him.
The costs of the status quo were obvious — pain, shame, fights, fear of losing the relationship. But the benefits of the status quo — and the costs of change — were not. Every time he wept and apologized, and promised to do better, his wife would flood him with forgiveness, affection, and affirmation. She would tell him how much she believed in him, and how much good she saw in him. Now, obviously there is absolutely nothing wrong with forgiveness, affection, and affirmation. But counter-intuitively, his pattern of alcohol addiction had become a very effective means of getting them. And on top of that, he got to keep drinking.
Now, I am certainly not saying that this was the reason for his addiction, or that the addiction ended when the whole picture came into focus. Overcoming substance addiction is usually a long and difficult road. But this man could not begin to walk down that road until both he and his wife saw what he was getting out of staying where he was.