Choosing a counsellor: the most important blind date you'll ever have

How to make sure you pick the right counsellor and what to expect in therapy

Let's start by looking at what many people imagine the process of seeking therapy to be like: 

  • You go to the doctors and tell them you're feeling a bit crappy.
  • You get asked a few odd questions by the GP that mean nothing to you at the time.
  • Midway through the appointment, you start to feel embarrassed for making a fuss and caveat all your symptoms with: "it could just be...." or "maybe this is normal for a mum or dad to feel, hormones an' all". 
  • You then get put onto a waiting list – usually months-long – and eventually get to see a counsellor. It may not be as you imagine; it could be better or it could be a lot worse. 
  • Surely that's that and you will get on with the counsellor, confide in him/her and be feeling much better soon enough? 

These kind of perceptions are not far off from the real thing. You might be lucky enough to have private health insurance or enough money to self-fund private sessions. So you book an appointment with a therapist at a private clinic, which looks OK on their website and specialises in the area you think you need help in. Surely this route provides guaranteed success? Not necessarily. 

Whether you go through your GP and end up seeing an NHS-funded therapist or a therapist at a privately-run facility, it isn't a given that the counsellor you have will be right for you. So basically, it’s a case of potluck. However, there is a way of finding out whether a counsellor is right for you early on in the process, rather than just assuming this is how it all works. In tandem with this is understanding the things you might think or feel during therapy and allowing time for these things to develop or disappear, before deciding a counsellor isn’t right for you. 

Please work Mr or Mrs therapist

First-hand experience

Before I canter on, I want to reference my own experiences with counsellors. I've been seeing counsellors on and off for 13 years. Just like my hairdresser, I've never had any loyalty – until now. I've seen around 20 counsellors to get to the lady who I trust with my life today, which will hopefully make you realise it's not as easy as just seeing your GP and going from there. Below are some pointers I wish I had been given when I first sought out counselling support. I hope my honesty will help if you are going through the same process.

I will add, I'm tricky. I'm the sort of patient who goes into a GP having first Googled my symptoms, self-diagnosed and then go about convincing the doctor that's the case. I try to outsmart therapists to see how good they are. I do this because I've seen so many therapists that just haven't been on the same page as me. I'm not suggesting they were rubbish, but they just didn’t do it for me. Until I met the lady who changed my life. She sniffed me out from the off and told me to stop wafting about and get down to business. And I listened. 

I've been in residential mental-health care and on day-release intensive programmes, alongside drug addicts, alcoholics, sex addicts and a whole host of people with eating disorders – both adults and children. I've seen, met and listened to people that society doesn't realise exist and it has left an imprint on my heart and mind. I was on such a high amount of medication at one point (which I now realise was the case with many adolescents 10 years+ ago) that I had to be regularly connected to ECG monitors to check my heart rate. I’ve been in front of so many psychiatrists and counsellors, and always thought I was unfixable. But, once my son came along, I realised that I just wasn't 'owning' my shit. And when I did, I found clarity. More on this later.

I probably don’t come across or look like the sort of person you may have crafted in your mind after reading the above. I’m the girl that society thinks has got it all. I have a lovely family, great friends, a house, a car and all the bits that come with this. During my last stint of therapy on day release – while six months pregnant with Flynn – somebody proclaimed: “Surely you can’t have any problems; you’ve got a Prada handbag”. Although some people will find this hilarious and probably think I’m a bit of a tw*t for mentioning it, this attitude has been the bane of my life since I was 18. Nobody took my mental-health worries seriously because, on the surface, I had it all. 

So why on earth would I have any problems? Except, as anyone who suffers from mental-health issues knows, whether you have it all or nothing at all, fundamentally, you still feel, think and behave the same. And parents, this is an attitude you will now contend with if you confide in certain people. You’ve got a baby/child and so you should be '#grateful' and just get on with it and the ‘baby blues’ will soon go away. I’m a huge advocate of talking to strangers with life experience, rather than close family and friends, as you find you get a very different set of answers.

 

Therapy pointers

This post isn't just geared towards Mums with PND, it is aimed at anyone with mental-health problems. My husband Andrew is currently undergoing therapy and has helped me to compile this:

  1. Therapists can only be effective if you tell the truth and declare, in your own time, everything that doesn’t feel right. If you only present bits of information and hide things, you will still walk away with a niggle in your mind.
  2. Remember, a therapist is not a mind reader, so don’t expect them to just know what to do.
  3. Don’t expect to walk away with answers. Rarely does a therapist give direct answers or solutions. Instead, they guide you towards the answers or ask you questions that make you realise things, which then answer questions you have. Think of it as being given a toolkit of new ways to think, behave and act, and the therapist showing you how to use them. He/she is also there to readjust, should one of the tools not work the first time you try to use it.
  4. Finding a therapist who works for you should be treated like dating. You meet and get that feeling in your gut that this person is alright. You warm to them, tell them more and, before you know it, you want to get a bit more serious and commit to them. You then find yourself looking forward to seeing that person because they will give you clarity and takeaways that work in the real world. One day you realise that you've changed for the better. This is how a good relationship between you and a therapist should go. And remember, it's a business exchange with benefits. Blunt, but it will help you to move on if you don't like the counsellor you've been given. 
  5. Have patience with yourself and remember that change takes time. 

 

Session progression

Most people follow this path of thought when first going to see a therapist:

Session 1: Super excited to offload everything. The therapist seems to be a bit long-winded and is asking me questions that seem unrelated. Oh Jesus, the hour is up and I don't feel any different.

Session 2: OK so I've got a mental checklist of things I want to raise and get answers to today. The therapist spends time recapping last session's areas and then bam, asks me a question about when I was a child and how my relationship was with my parents (this is not always the case). What the hell does she want to know that for? The hour is up and it feels like I've been there for all of five minutes. I walk away annoyed and feel that she isn't addressing what's going on in the here and now. 

That week you keep thinking about the question you were asked. Why? What does it mean? Should I have said this and why the hell has it got to me a bit? And this is the start of you reflecting.

Session 3: I'm not sure about this counselling. I feel like the therapist is off the mark and she's got to me. I'm not sure it's working actually and might not come back after this session. 

You then find yourself answering questions in Session 3 and talking lots more without realising you're doing it. The hour flies past.

Session 4-6: More talking. more clarity. You might have cry and feel anger, resentment, guilt, shame, fear, sorrow and many more feelings that start to bubble inside of you and may pop out very slowly or very quickly. The therapist brings these out. It's not totally pleasant, but you walk away feeling like you're stripping back layers and getting closer to finding a way forward. Somewhere in these sessions, you will have a lightbulb moment. 

 

Owning your shit

Expect the above to potentially happen and remember your mind is like a giant hardback Encyclopaedia and not Google – you can't just get instant recall, clarity or answers.

A good therapist should provide a safe place for you. If you trust your therapist, then you will start to open up to them. And if you feel just a little bit better, you will actually look forward to seeing them. Yes, who would’ve thought it! I do when I’m booked to go, as I’m usually feeling like I’m walking around with a shopping trolley full of items I don’t need. The therapist then takes the time to sort each item out and work out, with me leading, what I do and don’t need, so I walk away feeling lighter and happier. Therapists provide simplification and quiet in a noisy world.

Own your shitty bits to increase your chances of a successful therapy outcome. Bearing in mind, it has taken me a very long time for this one to drop, so this may not happen with you for a while. It’s the crux of successful therapy. In order to move on, you may need to realise things about yourself that aren’t pleasant. Things you have hidden, forgotten about or refused to acknowledge because they hurt too much. I used to be really highly strung, controlling and had a jealous streak that took over my life and others. There, I said it. Some really unattractive traits, which I denied or tried to get around. With my current therapist, I didn’t hesitate in owning my shit. But, this doesn’t mean you have to punish yourself. It is about owning what part you’ve played and still play – crap bits an’ all. We all present our best selves to the outside world, so this makes owning your crappy bits hard, because the world may not see your negative ways of thinking, behaving or treating other people and so, you might not actually have any immediate need to change. But you can’t keep a front up forever 24/7 and, chances are, those closest to you have seen a glimpse of it. Your ‘shit’ includes your thoughts, actions, vibe, mood, worries, perceptions and so on.  

Don’t treat your mental health like a project at work. Don’t set goals or expect the therapy to make an impact instantly. You can’t pressure the therapist or yourself to move quicker. Yes, more intense therapy such as day-long sessions, might get to the heart of your issues a lot quicker, but it does have the risk of you going back into the big bad world and expecting things to just fall into place. Be gentle, patient and enjoy the time it takes to get to where you want to be. 

And FINALLY, don’t assume there is an end to therapy. Nobody tells you when you’re better. You may feel more equipped and find that the frequency of therapy changes as time goes on. However, you may find that you always see someone – and why not? I think it’s a great thing to have somebody balanced and often with lots of life experience to speak to when the going gets tough. You may have more children and feel the same again. You may lose your job and face confidence issues. You may split with a partner and need guidance and support. You might lose a loved one and not be able to move forward, or anywhere really, because the grief is so overwhelming. Most of us will go through some of these hurdles in life and there is no shame in getting help from someone who knows us deep down and has no hidden agenda. Treat your therapist like a good friend – cherish them and always have them close.

LAUREN MARKS-CLEEComment