The therapeutic relationship in counseling is a beautiful and complicated thing. When the relationship is a good fit and the client feels he/she/they can trust the therapist to handle their issues with care and without judgment, therapy can prove to be an incredible foundation for the client to grow and thrive. If you are entering therapy for the first time and come across this writing, it may provide some answers to questions you have going into the process. Even if you are a seasoned veteran of therapy, you may simply find it interesting. Either way, here are four common questions asked in therapy:
- How do I know if we are a good fit? And will it hurt the therapist’s feelings if it isn’t?
This is a fantastic question. Before you shell out hundreds to thousands of hard-earned dollars it is important to question whether the therapist is going to be a good fit. The first step in determining this is to contact the therapist via email or phone. Here at Deepwater Counsling, we have several therapists available that each have their own unique specialties, so when you contact us you will be asked some general questions such as the reason for seeking therapy. Depending on the issues you are facing, a therapist will be suggested to you who is most qualified, trained, and experienced to suit your needs.
Once you are in session, you’ll get a feel for how you jive with the therapist. She or he should be compassionate, alert, professional, and non-judgmental. While you may be nervous in the initial session (this is COMPLETELY normal, btw), you should be able to tell if this is someone you will be overall comfortable with over time.
Does Your Therapist Listen to You?
If you come in and tell them you want to address a certain issue, such as weight loss, but they spend the entire session focusing on anything else but that, they may not be a good fit. Let me add an exception to this rule: there are times in therapy where diversions take place. For example, a client’s struggles with weight loss may be strongly tied to childhood issues which will need to be worked through, so in such cases those diversions usually contribute to a very productive session. However, this is after a relationship has been established and trust has been built.
Is the Therapist from a Similar Background?
For some people, they prefer a therapist with similar life experiences as them or from a similar culture or background, and that is totally okay. Some clients don’t care about the race, culture, gender, or background and can spill all gory details about their lives with whomever they are placed with, and that’s fine also. The most important thing is the ability to feel a connection with your therapist.
It’s Not About Them…
Don’t worry about your counselor’s feelings getting hurt should you feel it’s not the right fit. Any good therapist cares about your well-being and wants the best for you – above all else. If you are someone that needs a completely structured session chock-full of homework assignments such as a straight CBT (cognitive behavioral) therapist, then a more laid-back and eclectic therapist may not be the absolute best fit for you. A good therapist will also let you know if they feel ill-equipped to help you and will often refer you to someone who may fit better. Just please don’t blatantly insult the therapist or throw tomatoes at them on your way out (if you must throw something, chocolate is a better alternative to tomatoes, especially Godiva).
- Are There Any Off-Limit Topics?
This is a loaded question. It is my personal belief that a client should be able to discuss whatever’s on their mind and not worry about being judged negatively by their therapist. A good practice for any clincian is that they practice “unconditional positive regard” toward their client – a concept by psychologist Carl Rogers – and should accept and support what the client says and does. I must qualify this though – this does not mean the therapist will encourage negative behavior; however, we will not shame you or treat you negatively. Also, if you are planning to harm yourself or others we have a duty to warn and report said behavior to authorities. Unconditional positive regard toward you as the client does mean we will remain compassionate and positive toward you no matter what because we support your development. You are in therapy because you want to grow and shed the negative and we want to help you, so we regard you positively at all times.
Let’s Talk About Sex…Wait, Can We?
There are some therapists that will not discuss sex with their clients and who are uncomfortable with topics so personal. This could be due to religious beliefs or other reasons, but most other therapists, myself included, believe humans are deeply complex beings with thoughts, feelings, and ideals as numerous as the stars above. It’s because of this complexity that a therapist needs to be comfortable discussing any topic the client needs to – including sex and sexuality.
Hmmm…Tell Me More
Please don’t be offended if the therapist shows emotions, such as surprise, at something you say, laughs at something humorous, or asks questions to clarify something. When I have clients that identify as “non-binary” or “trans” for example, I always ask them to define that for me. The terminology regarding sexual orientation and gender is vast and ever-changing, and to better help the individual client I need to know what their identification means to them personally.
- Why Won’t My Therapist Give Me Direct Advice?
This is another super loaded question with several answers. There are cases in which we do advise: 1) if we believe you may need psychiatric care, 2) if you contact us during an anxiety attack and need direct advice for handling it in the moment, 3) if you come in for short-term counseling with minor issues and have made it clear you are seeking advice about things rather than long-term therapy, 4) when seeing children we’ll give directions to the parents to help with the child’s progress in therapy, and 5) assisting a client who is being abused remain safe.
Because You Know Yourself Best
The truth is, simply dishing out advice would be a disservice to you. We want you to grow and make confident, genuine decisions based on your needs – not ours, and not society’s. We may have a lot of training and letters after our name, but you know yourself best, and our job is simply to be a guide on your personal journey.
- Why Can’t we Become Friends?
This is a common question and it is a fun one! Yes, every therapist has clients in their practice they would just love to hang out and be friends with. On more than one occasion I have thought to myself “Damn, if only I had met this client years ago before I joined this profession!” I have a lot in common with some of my clients – some have the same sense of dark humor that I do, while others love horror movies or Nintendo just like I do. That being said, as much as it would rock to hang out with one of those clients, it can’t happen. Not only would it be unethical, it would hurt the hard work done in therapy. Here’s why:
- The therapeutic relationship depends on your ability to disclose any and all things buried in your history or at the forefront of your mind. Say you’re struggling with something serious such as past sexual abuse, and you need a safe and confidential place to work through it. Often when a person discloses something such as sexual abuse to their friend, the friend is generally sympathetic. However, some friends may become awkward and unable to handle the information and this could strain the friendship. A therapist is trained to handle such information with compassion and care, and you can rest assured your confidentiality will be kept.
- Confidentiality is often the biggest ethical factor in therapy. In fact, if your therapist runs into you in public, she or he won’t acknowledge or address you unless you do so first. You may not want your boss, friends, or family members knowing you are in therapy, so we are trained to respect that boundary.
- If you and your therapist were friends, the therapist would never be able to contribute much in conversation with your peers present for fear of violating confidentiality. Also, you may potentially alter your behavior with friends and family while around your therapist due to fear of being judged by him or her.
- If the therapist got to know you as a friend, it would create a bias on both sides – the therapist is going to see behaviors in you they were unaware of and may question the direction they took with you in session. You could end up learning things about the therapist that may change your entire view and this could undo the hard work in the prior therapeutic relationship. These are just examples of why your therapist cannot be your friend – even on social media.
- One final reason is the inability for you to return to the same therapist if a friendship has developed. In fact, it would be harmful because you had crossed that boundary. You would have to start over from square one with a stranger, and I know from personal experience that it can sometimes take seeing several therapists before you find a good match.
The Bottom Line
Therapy is work. While at times sessions can be fun and even enjoyable, the therapist is there to help guide you as you learn more about yourself. Occasionally your therapist may need to confront you directly and challenge your thinking and ideas. Sometimes these confrontations may be a bit painful, but they are small seeds that can provide huge growth as you wrestle with them. This type of work can’t be done in the context of a friendship with the therapist.
The therapeutic relationship, while not a friendship, can be a powerful one. It is a working relationship that can be treasured by both you and your therapist. By understanding the nature of the therapeutic relationship and respecting its boundaries, therapy can help you grow in ways you never thought possible.