By Laura Groulx, BEd, MSW, RSW
Your first counselling session can be anxiety-provoking: you’re sitting with a stranger, in a quiet room, and talking about very personal issues and topics. You might feel incredibly vulnerable. However, know that anxiety in this situation is totally normal, so don’t let it stop you from attending!
The majority of people that push through that first session vulnerability and anxiety return for a follow-up. This means that the experience was worth it, and they desire to return and continue. When it comes to anxiety generally, it’s often the anticipatory unknown that causes distress. The purpose of this article is to help with just that, shed light on the unknown by exploring what to expect and ways you can prepare, in order to take away (at least some of!) the first counselling session jitters.
What brought you to counselling: Your counsellor will want to know what led you into their office. This is the current issue, stressor, or situation, that inspired you to book the appointment. Knowing the presenting problem can help your counsellor understand where you’re at today, in order to begin exploring coping strategies for the present and future.
Background Information: In order to add context, and uncover any other contributing factors that may be impacting your overall state, your counsellor will spend time exploring your history. For instance, they will ask you questions about your current and past family dynamics, as well as any significant historical stressors. This part of the first counselling session can sometimes be the most challenging, but know that you don’t necessarily have to go into the rich details of difficult memories, but instead, provide a general overview in order to help your counsellor understand where you’re coming from and what you’ve been through. Afterall, your past directly impacts who you are in the present.
Your interests and strengths: Your counsellor will want to get to know you outside of your stressors and problems. Be prepared to share any interests or hobbies you may have, talk about the people in your life that are important to you, and ways in which you have coped with adversity previously.
Your goals for counselling: Counselling is more than just talking, it’s talking with a purpose. Counselling is about actively working towards personal change and growth (which takes work, and isn’t easy!), because in any situation you find yourselves in, the only factor you can actively change is your role in it all. As an example, you likely can’t make the stress around you end, but you can learn stress, anxiety, or anger management skills. Just like you can’t get that person in your life to act/react the way you want them to, but you can work on communication skills, or letting go of what’s out of your control. Alternatively, counselling can be used as a way to support you through something difficult, such as grief. With that said, prior to attending your first counselling session, consider what it is you hope to get out of it.
Relationship building: Counsellors are people too! With different personalities, quirks, and approaches. A therapeutic relationship is being built, beginning in the first session. Because of this, it’s not uncommon for some form of rapport building conversation to occur, which may include humour (or at least the counsellor’s version of it!).
Additional ways to prepare: There are different ways to prepare for that first session. Considering what to expect, some people find it helpful to ponder their responses ahead of time. If you’d like, you can create a list of important content that you would like to discuss, to ease the anxiety of forgetting. In addition, be prepared with any questions you may have about the counselling process. Perhaps most importantly, be prepared to talk and open up; counselling is a safe and confidential place to have the big conversations.
The first counselling session is simply the beginning of an ongoing process. Upon returning over time, you will become more familiar with what to expect, and with the counsellor themselves. On the topic of expectations, it’s important to keep them realistic. Often the first session or two are more about understanding than problem solving or healing. Healing occurs over time. If you are patient and committed to the counselling process, your counsellor will be more than happy to join you on your journey. Moral of the story: take a chance, be vulnerable, and push through that initial anxiety. You never know, it could be one of the best experiences you ever have.
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