One of the most challenging questions I hear in counselling is when a new client asks me if I think counselling can help them. Typically this will be at the end of our initial discussion at our first meeting. This is a fact-finding meeting and not a counselling session as such. At the end of this meeting the client and I decide how (or if) we go forward, and generally I will be led by the client.
Understandably, the question uppermost in my potential client’s mind is whether counselling will work for them. So why is this such a challenging question?
At this point in time the client and I are still relative strangers. A very important element of the relationship between counsellor and client is trust. People come to counselling because something in their life feels wrong and they are not sure how to change it. Person-centred counselling isn’t about telling or advising people what to do. It is about helping them access difficult emotional areas and enabling positive change – it is essentially ‘non-directive’. This can only happen effectively in a relationship that has the key elements of trust and safety.
It is therefore essential that the client feels comfortable with their counsellor. I often suggest that those considering counselling try out initial discussions (I prefer not to use terms like ‘assessments’ or ‘interviews’) with two or three potential counsellors just to see how they feel in their company, before committing to a series of sessions.
So whether counselling will help depends as much as anything on how a client feels about working with their new counsellor, and they will have a better idea about that than the counsellor will, even if they are still unsure. Taking the question to a more general level – i.e. can counselling help as a process in itself? – my inclination would be to say yes in most cases, simply because the healing potential arising from a therapeutic relationship – once it develops – is so powerful.
In the context of a trusting relationship it becomes possible for the client to allow themselves to be more truly who they are, without fear of judgment or rejection. It is then easier for the client to develop the courage to engage more fully with the reality of their experiencing, past or present. This will quite likely involve connecting with difficult emotions. Our emotions are real and have something to say to us, in the same way that physical pain warns us that our bodies need attention.
Facing up to, and dealing with, emotional pain takes courage. So timing is important. When entering into counselling people need to feel ready and that, at least to some extent, they are in control. What happens in counselling can be both liberating and illuminating. But you need to want to be there.