There are a lot of counsellors out there, and they all work a little differently, so how do you choose someone who’s right for you? You can get bogged down reading all the detail about how and where they trained and which theories they subscribe to, or perhaps you have definite ideas about what gender and age you’d prefer in your counsellor. Or maybe there’s just something about their photo that made you think “I could talk to that person.” Whoever you choose, you should definitely expect to be faced with someone who is an excellent listener. Sometimes we forget what a rare thing that is until we experience it once a week in counselling.
Counsellors are trained in a variety of ways and often adopt an ‘orientation’ that they practice from. You might have read on their website or heard them say on the phone that they work humanistically or psychodynamically, or that they use a CBT model. Many counsellors choose to blend different counselling approaches and call themselves ‘integrative’.
What does this mean for you, coming to counselling for the first time? Well, while we all work from different theoretical angles, all good counsellors have this in common: they listen to you and show you respect and understanding. If you would like your counsellor to do something, like help you delve back into your childhood, or guide you through some creative activities, just ask them. Counsellors always want to know what you would like to get out of counselling, and they will be very honest about what they can and can’t help you with.
One word of warning: counselling is an unregulated industry, which means that anyone can (legally) call themselves a counsellor and take your money, without any training or experience at all. I recommend that you check that your counsellor has been trained to either Diploma (Level 4) or Degree level in counselling/psychotherapy, and preferably that they are also a member of one of the major professional counselling bodies (BACP or UKCP are the largest and most common, but you'll find a comprehensive list here).
It’s common for clients to worry that they might be too much of a burden to the counsellor: that surely the counsellor won’t have met anyone with quite such a traumatic back story, or in quite such a sticky dilemma, or who is quite so very depressed and anxious. Please don’t let this stop you from coming and giving it a try. Counsellors are trained to cope with tough things and it’s a requirement of our profession that we have robust support in place.
Others worry that their difficulties are not ‘serious’ enough or that they might be wasting the counsellor’s time. This is never the case. If something is hindering you from living your life fully, then it absolutely merits a closer look with a supportive counsellor.
Now and then, however, it is necessary for a counsellor to refer a client to another colleague. Counsellors are not perfect people who never have problems and if, for example, you were coming to counselling to talk about your recent divorce, and the counsellor had also just recently divorced, they would likely explain that it wouldn’t be a good idea to work together. There’s simply a danger of the counsellor’s issues and viewpoints clouding up how they work with you, and so they would recommend a colleague who could help.
Often choosing a counsellor is a case of finding someone who 'feels' right: you get a good feeling when you read their profile, speak to them on the phone or when you go to meet them in person. Trust your gut feeling - and do check out their credentials.