A beginner’s guide to counselling and therapy: #1 What should I talk about?

Inspired by the variety of questions people ask when they first begin therapy, this is the first in a series of short posts aimed at helping you to get the most out of your counselling sessions.

New clients often ask ‘what should I talk about in my counselling sessions?’ The short answer, of course, is that you can talk about anything you like. Absolutely anything at all. This is the joy of the therapeutic relationship: the counsellor is there to think about you whilst you are there to think about…, well, you. You won’t get this in any other relationship in your adult life, so you may as well make the most of it. Talk about your boss, your neighbour, your partner, your cat or that woman off Waking the Dead that reminds you of your mother but is a bit nicer. You talk about whatever it is – and I mean whatever – that is taking up your attention right now. It might be a specific problem – this is why you have come to counselling in the first place, after all – but it might just be something that is sitting at the front of your mind and you don’t really know why you keep thinking about Steve from accounts. That’s why you are coming to counselling –  to let someone else help you to make sense of things.

And now here comes the really good bit: you don’t need to worry about what to talk about because it’s not your job to make sure the sessions are therapeutic.  It’s your therapist’s job to keep an eye on the therapeutic process and make sure that the content is dealt with in a therapeutic way. So don’t be surprised if you talk about Steve from accounts and your therapist decides to ‘explore things further’ and wonders whether this has anything to do with your unhappiness in your current relationship…which might have something to do with your feelings of low self-esteem…which just might be related to how you experience yourself in the world and in relation to other people…which might have something to do with your pattern of becoming disillusioned in relationships. Get the picture?

So once you have realised that you are not in charge of making this counselling thing work, and no doubt breathed a heavy sigh of relief, you might ask yourself ‘is there anything that I really ought to talk about?’ This is a definite yes: you ought to talk about things that trouble and concern you, things that you don’t like about yourself and things that you feel scared of talking to people about. Especially the things that you feel scared of talking to people about.

Your counsellor is the person who won’t judge you, shame you or make you feel inadequate for having these feelings. So please, really do go ahead and talk about all of those tricky things as well as Steve from accounts.

So you feel relieved that you are not in charge of making sure the sessions keep a therapeutic bent? Then read on, because one thing you will find in therapy is that any definitive statement is invariably followed with ‘but, on the other hand…’. So here goes a pretty important ‘on the other hand’: although you are not responsible for maintaining the therapeutic process, it’s really important to recognise that it is not your counsellor’s job to fix everything, find your solutions for you or take responsibility for you feeling better about things. All of that is still yours, I’m afraid, lovely as it would be to have someone in life who was responsible for making everything better.

At some point in the first couple of sessions your counsellor will probably say ‘I’m not going to give you advice or fix things for you’ and you will probably think ‘so what exactly is it that I’m paying you for?’ And the answer is that you are paying them to make sure that the conversation is a therapeutic one and not just the kind of chat you might have down the pub with your mates. So if ever counselling does start to feel like the kind of chat you would have with your mates then feel free to ask your therapist how they think the therapy is progressing.

After all, you can talk about anything you like at all.


This entry was posted on Thursday, September 1st, 2011 at 11:39 am and is filed under A beginner's guide to counselling and therapy, General, Psychotherapy. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

2 Comments For This Post

  1. Christine Bonsmann

    What a treat to find your delightful website. It gives a real sense of who you are and what it would be like to work with you. So refreshing compared to others.

  2. Ilissa Banhazl

    Great topic. Definitely worth writing an article about. Patients can be very anxious coming for the first time. I will share with my patients! Unfortunately, I can’t retweet or share as I see no links on your page. : ( Something to think about… Ilissa Banhazl, Marriage and Family psychotherapy in Glendora, CA

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