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What Is Important About Our Relationships With Our Counselors?

Steven Topper LCPC 

More and more, the stigma around seeking counseling is decreasing, and the willingness of people to begin therapeutic relationships is increasing. Within these cultural changes to how we talk about, accept, and understand therapy, I have noticed that often on social media there is a thread of discussion around therapy as an agent of good. And, as a clinician myself, I find hope and joy in this conversation. Yet I’ve also noticed that within that conversation, people often talk about the act of going to therapy itself as the agent of good, rather than the processes that occur within therapy. Once someone goes to therapy, they’ll be cured (I sure wish this was the case!). Unfortunately (at least from an empirical perspective) simply going to therapy doesn’t guarantee psychological and emotional improvement. One of the major factors to positive long term outcomes within a therapeutic journey is the strength of the relationship we have with our counselors. They are taught to be patient, compassionate, caring, and supportive (though we don’t need to forget that they are also human beings, as capable as any of us at making mistakes and acting with impatience). An incredibly powerful strategy that can be taken when engaging in therapy is to identify and speak to what happens between myself and my counselor. And there are a number of ways to do this, all of which may lead to a more fruitful and fulfilling journey with therapy.

While all of us have goals and dreams in mind when we begin therapy, it’s not uncommon to get sidetracked, to fall into cyclical patterns, and to avoid difficult conversations. Even these processes can be helpful to note when they’re occurring. One helpful tool is to be open and honest with how I feel and what I think about my therapist. Even in the moment it can be enormously useful to say, “I’m noticing that I don’t want to let you down,” or, “It feels like if I told you what was going on, you would be disappointed.” There may be numerous experiences we have with our therapists, including feeling worried about judgment, feeling like we’re too much for them to handle, and countless others. Speaking to these feelings opens a dialogue about how both you and your therapist are showing up within this relationship. And, how we are in therapy is how we are in real life! So noticing patterns of how I treat my therapist, how they treat me, and how we get along all can help shed light on the relationships outside of therapy.

An important part in all of this is that how I treat my counselor and how I respond to them can be seen as a chance to try new behaviors. Maybe when getting compliments I’m used to brushing them aside, “It’s not a big deal, it wasn’t that hard.” Saying something different, like, “Thank you… It means a lot when you notice that about me… That really makes me feel good,” may be totally different than how we’re used to responding- and way out of our comfort zones. Yet we can try these new behaviors out in the therapeutic space, and then see what happens. This is one of the big ways we can make the most of our time in therapy, by trying things and seeing what happens. From a behavioral science perspective, this is all about leaning out of my comfort zone, and paying close attention to how my environment responds. It could be that giving a sincere thank you when I’m complimented leads to deeper connection and receiving more compliments from my therapist. It’ll be helpful to notice this happening, because we may want those very things to happen in our lives! 

Finally, asking clearly and directly for your needs to be met is a great strategy for increasing the likelihood of productive counseling. It’s common for us to try really hard to get people to notice we’re struggling (or doing well), or to allude to something we’d like to hear (think: reassurance seeking). It could be an opportunity for growth and learning to be direct in a session about wanting or feeling like we need reassurance. While this doesn’t mean we’ll necessarily get what we’re looking for, it gives an opportunity for both our counselors and us to have a more open, vulnerable conversation about how we get our needs met. So many of us struggle with asserting our needs that doing so in therapy may teach us how to do this more often with our loved ones.

Whenever you’re in a therapy session, challenge yourself to notice the features of the relationship itself. What do I think of the person sitting across from me? What am I scared they will think? What could I try and see how they respond? How could I ask directly for what I need, in this moment? All of these questions can illuminate the therapeutic relationship itself, increasing the likelihood that the time we spend in therapy is both meaningful and successful. Talk to your therapist to learn more ways to explore getting the most out of therapy. Contact Symmetry Counseling today to meet with one of our Chicago counselors in-person or via online counseling.

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