For many people, the idea of opening up to a counsellor is challenging. You walk into your counselling session with good intentions, fully comprehending that talking is part of the process, yet it feels so difficult to talk about what matters. Below are ten reasons why that may be happening…
1. You haven’t had counselling before. It can feel quite disconcerting to sit with a stranger and share thoughts and feelings. You might not feel an immediate connection with your counsellor, or you may not be clear about what precisely is expected of you. Your counsellor is not unaware of the difficulties new clients feel. They will ask you how you are feeling during or toward the end of the session. These are opportunities to let them know you were feeling awkward, shy, disconnected etc. Such candid answers are not deemed as criticism, rather they help your counsellor to understand you better. Counsellors will also be familiar with questions new clients might have. Even if you think your queries are irrelevant, it’s likely your counsellor has heard similar concerns before… ‘what happens if I can’t open up?’, ‘part of me thinks coming here is a mistake’. Sharing your concerns helps build the connection and relationship between you and your counsellor – something crucial for effective therapy to happen.
2. You find your counsellor a bit odd in some way. Clients wonder why their counsellors sit in long awkward silences with them. They feel frustrated that their polite questions (‘how are you today?’) are not responded to with simple replies (‘I’ve noticed your concern for me and I’m wondering…’). A therapeutic relationship is unlike any other relationship you will have. For while your counsellor hears, sees and gets to know the whole of you, you will only get to know a small part of them. Each counsellor will have a different style in how they relate to you, shaped by their theoretical backgrounds. Some will respond to your polite questions in the manner in which you would expect from a friend. Some will share details about their personal lives and when they do, they will have considered the impact of that on the therapeutic relationship. This is important as this example shows: a client asks how I am and I reply that I am tired because I was up most of the night with my sick father. This could create any number of thoughts for the client from, ‘she's probably too tired to listen to me properly’ to ‘all that stuff I told her about my father, she must think I’m a bad daughter’. Revealing personal information could cause ‘damage’ to the therapeutic work and counsellors are wary of this.
As for the silences, they provide clients time for reflection and tuning in to what they are feeling. They give clients time to think about what they want to say. Some very powerful moments of insight occur during silences. I find over time, that clients get accustomed to our silences, however, if you do find the silences anxiety-provoking, let your counsellor know as that is useful information.
3. You don’t want to cry in front of your counsellor. Talking about your problems can understandably make you feel sad and bring tears. This is normal, you are not weak if this happens. Tears can help us heal from hurtful experiences. The box of tissues is there for a reason. Your counsellor will have experienced this with clients many times before and know how difficult those moments can be. Most counsellors will sit patiently as you cry, with respectful non-judgemental empathy. And while they don’t get up and comfort you with an arm around your shoulder, they will metaphorically be ‘holding’ you. You will sense this support and you will see the empathy in their faces, as that is part of what you have created together in your therapeutic relationship. And perhaps later, if they feel you are ready, they will ask what thought helped you to cry.
4. You can’t find the right words. Your therapist asks you how you feel and you say ‘sad’ and that one word seems to be the adjective you use the most to describe your feelings because you can’t think of another way to describe how you feel. This is fine – you don’t need the vocabulary. It is your counsellor’s role to help you explore that sadness. They will also be observing your body language - emotions are expressed in many ways. If can’t find the words because you can’t identify what you are feeling, an ‘I don’t know how I’m feeling’ is an appropriate response. If it might help you, ask your counsellor for a list of emotion words to look at – these are also available online to print for free. I’ve found with a few clients, having a list can help them identify what their feeling is.
5. You think your counsellor is judging you. Being non-judgemental is a core principle of most therapeutic models and counsellors learn how to work with clients without judgement. That said, you could still feel as if you are being judged. Counsellors hear this a lot – and they won’t take it as personal criticism if you let them know you feel this. Most counsellors will help you explore your feelings of being judged – which can be quite an eye-opener.
6. You feel your problems are minor compared to other people. A few times, clients have said things to me along the lines of, ‘this must seem like a first world problem to you’. The truth is no client has ever brought something into the room which I have felt is trivial; if it matters to the person sitting in front of me, it matters to me too. Remember, you aren’t there to entertain your counsellor with interesting and dramatic problems - they have Netflix for that. If you feel this way, tell your counsellor. Perhaps you thought they looked disinterested? A client who declares ‘last week I thought you looked a bit bored’ can bring about some therapeutically enlightening insights for both the counsellor and the client.
7. You find yourself avoiding a particular thing. You are able to talk to your counsellor and think therapy is going well, only you can’t seem to open up about something in particular. This can feel frustrating. It’s also quite normal and it could be happening for any number of reasons. The thought of opening up old wounds can be very painful, so we may not do it for years. We build psychological defences and these can be strong. Your counsellor will learn this about you and work with it, respectfully exploring any resistances or ‘blocks’. It’s not unusual for a client to share something significant with me after many sessions together. This is fine. The therapeutic process works at the client’s pace, not the counsellor’s.
8. Your therapist reminds you of someone. This happens to us in our everyday lives - we meet someone and something about them reminds us of someone else. I’ve had clients tell me that I remind them of their xxxx. When this happens, I try and explore what that feels like for them. Let’s say I remind them of a former colleague - someone they did not like, someone who behaved as if they were better than them. So we explore... ‘how might this impact our relationship? Is there a part of you that feels I might be like that? What could you do if you did feel I behaved like that?’ Such an exploration is incredibly beneficial for therapy.
9. You can’t help thinking this is just a job for your counsellor and you are just another client– they don’t really care about you. Would you have similar thoughts when seeing a doctor, nurse or other caring professional? What is it about this particular relationship that brings this thought to mind? This could be beneficial for you to explore with your counsellor. Not doing so and holding on to that thought could hamper the therapy so I'd strongly suggest you take the leap and tell them how you feel.
10. It’s about sex. Not everyone is comfortable discussing their sex lives with others. It can feel awkward, and it might feel you are betraying your partner(s). You may experience feelings of shame, guilt or inadequacy. I would suggest letting your counsellor know your present moment feelings such as, ‘I’m finding this really embarrassing’. This will help you both in how you explore the topic. Keep in mind that sex is not only about the physical act. It’s also about how you create and experience intimacy in your relationships. It’s can be related to desire, fantasy, power, body insecurity, vulnerability, anxiety, fear of rejection and many other aspects.
By no means is this list replete. The bottom line is if you are finding it difficult to talk, tell your counsellor. This will help them to understand you better and tailor the session. It’s also useful to keep in mind that your relationship with your counsellor is a changing one, and as the relationship strengthens, you will almost surely find it easier to talk to your counsellor.