In April of every year, we celebrate Counseling Awareness Month. The field of counseling has come a long way in recent years. There used to be a big stigma against seeing a counselor. Although that stigma is still present in some ways, it’s not as prohibitive as it once was. Going to see a counselor is becoming more normalized, which is a wonderful accomplishment.
Although going to counseling is becoming more and more common, there are still many people who have never worked with a counselor. Like any new experience, seeing a counselor for the first time might be scary. You might not know what to expect.
That’s why MINES & Associates has put together this 101 guide on counseling for beginners. In it, we’ll give you the details of what you can expect the counseling process to look like. Here’s a spoiler: It can look different for everyone.
Let’s dig in.
What should you expect from counseling?
The exact process of counseling can be different depending on who you are, what you’re struggling with, and what type of counselor you work with. However, there are some things you can expect from any good counselor, no matter what.
First of all, you can expect your counselor to be non-judgmental. Counselors are trained to work with people from all different walks of life. You might feel embarrassed to tell them about the intimate details of your life – and this is completely normal, especially if it’s your first time in counseling.
But try to remember that your counselor isn’t there to judge you. All counselors should practice a non-judgmental approach. One key tenet of humanistic counseling is unconditional positive regard, in which your counselor believes in your inherent worth as a person – no matter what. The counseling relationship is a safe space in which you can be completely yourself with no shame.
Counseling is also confidential. That means that your counselor cannot divulge any information that you tell them to anyone else – not to your spouse, to your friends, or to your boss. In fact, they can’t even reveal the fact that you’re in counseling at all.
There are a few exceptions to your legal right to confidentiality. If your counselor determines that you’re a danger to yourself or others (for example, if you are at risk of attempting suicide or threatening to harm somebody), then they will need to take appropriate action to keep you and others safe, even if that means breaking confidentiality. Secondly, counselors are mandated reporters, so if they suspect a child or older adult is being abused, then they must alert authorities.
Lastly, counseling is about you. Sometimes, when we’re used to talking to friends or family members about our troubles, we aren’t used to all of the attention being on us. But in counseling, you don’t need to worry about “burdening” your counselor. This time is all about you, and you only.
What does a typical counseling session look like?
Counseling sessions will look different based on the theories and methods that your counselor uses.
There are three main formats of counseling: in-person, virtual face-to-face (video call), and telephone counseling. If you’re seeing a counselor in-person, you will probably wait in a confidential lobby or waiting room – just like you would at the dentist, for example. For video or telephone counseling, your counselor will give you instructions on how to log in to your session.
Typically, counselors will allow space for you at the beginning of the session to explore thoughts, feelings, experiences, insights, and events that have come up for you since your last session. Often, therapists ask open and engaging questions to help you explore. Many people find it helpful to prepare for their counseling sessions by writing down some notes on what they’d like to discuss with their counselor.
The important thing to remember is that the time you spend with your counselor is free of judgment and confidential.
What your counselor does with this information often differs based on what method they use. For example, a cognitive-behavioral therapist may help you to identify and challenge unhelpful thinking patterns that may have come up for you between sessions. Another type of counselor may engage you in problem-solving strategies. Some counselors bring other methodologies, like art, music, or mindfulness, to sessions when appropriate.
If your counselor has given you any homework assignments to complete during the session, then they will probably take some time to review the assignments and any lessons you learned.
What should I talk about in my counseling session?
Many people feel stuck about what, exactly, they are supposed to talk about in counseling sessions. Should you rattle off anything that’s on your mind? Should you return to the same themes each session?
The good news is that there is no “should” and “shouldn’t” when it comes to what you talk about during your counseling sessions. Remember, this time is for you – so you can use that time however you’d like.
To give you an idea, many people talk to counselors about:
- How they’ve been feeling emotionally throughout the week
- Any new mental health symptoms they’ve noticed
- How their relationships are going
- Their stress levels
- How they have been coping with stressors
- Challenges they have encountered in life
- Lessons or insights they have gained about themselves
- Any new habits they have picked up (whether positive or negative)
- Behavioral patterns they’ve noticed in themselves
- Worries they have been ruminating about
- Current feelings (for example, if you feel anxious about being in counseling, you can tell your counselor this!)
- Past traumatic experiences they’ve gone through
- Their hopes, dreams, and goals for the future
What will my first counseling session be like?
Starting counseling can be a daunting experience, especially if it’s your first time. It’s normal to feel nervous or uncertain about what to expect during your initial session.
Your first counseling session is typically an opportunity for you and your counselor to get to know each other and discuss your goals for therapy. Your counselor may ask you some questions about your personal history, current concerns, and what you hope to achieve through counseling.
The first session is also an opportunity for you to tell your counselor about any previous experience with therapy and any preferences or concerns you have about the process.
Your counselor may also need to go through some “housekeeping” tasks during the first session, like having you sign consent forms and talking to you about confidentiality.
Ultimately, the first session is an important step towards building a strong therapeutic relationship and finding the support you need to achieve your mental health goals. If you have any questions about the counseling process, then this first session is a great time to ask them.
Get counseling through your Employee Assistance Program
If you’re feeling stuck or overwhelmed on where to start looking for a counselor to begin with, going through your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) could be a good option. MINES & Associates provides free and confidential 24/7 counseling to all employees who are members of our EAP. Learn more about our EAP today.
To your wellbeing,
The MINES Team