I recently had a question from a person who was having difficulty opening up to her counsellor. She could not even look her counselor in the eye and felt she was her counselor’s worst client.
Opening up to a stranger can be strange
I wonder how many people are in the same boat when they go to see a psychologist or counselor. It makes sense because pouring your heart out to a stranger while the clock is ticking does not come naturally to everyone. So, it may just be a natural problem that many people have to overcome — a sort of shyness in counselling, and I have some tips below on how to do this. On the other hand, the problem could be the relationship with the counselor.
Make sure you have a counselor with whom you feel comfortable
One of the most important things in the counseling relationship is something we call rapport. This, as some of you may know, is the actual relationship dynamic between the client and counselor. Sometimes, even if you have a very good counsellor, she may not be the right counselor for you.
Finding a good fit can be difficult and the insurance companies don’t make it any easier considering that they often only pay for a set (low) number of sessions. However, despite this, there is no sense in wasting your time when you do not have a good rapport with your counselor, and when you feel you cannot open up to your counselor, that is a sign that there might not be a good rapport.
Tips on how to open up to your counselor
- You can break the ice by discussing the fact that you find it strange to open up to someone you don’t know.
- Trust him/her with one small piece of your heart at a time. Try sharing something and observe how your counselor responds. Do you feel supported? Do you feel challenged? Do you feel he/she was insightful? Do you feel judged or bullied? (P.S. If you feel judged or bullied, it is time to get another counsellor — and P.P.S. Not all counselors are good ones. As much as I have heard from people who had genuine, empathetic, compassionate, and insightful counselors, I have also heard many people tell me about counselors who said things that are damaging, stupid, and unacceptable.)
- This is a practical tip on what to do if you are really having trouble with opening up, and, particularly if you are tongue-tied and cannot think of what to say during your session: Before your session, brainstorm a list of all the things you want to discuss with your counselor. Take a few moments AFTER you have completed the list to cross off items that are not really important to you if there are any such items.
- Suppose that you cannot think of anything and draw a blank with the brainstorming exercise. I have another exercise for you: Get a journal. Every morning, do what Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way refers to as “morning pages”. (By the way, that is an excellent book and I highly recommend it to anyone, but particularly to writers and other artists.)Morning pages are three full pages of completely unedited freestyle writing. You basically just write whatever is on your mind and you try to keep writing without stopping until you have filled three pages. At first, it can be difficult, but once you get used to it, it becomes a habit. While Julia Cameron insists these should be done in the morning, not everyone can get up half an hour early to do them, and I have found them effective when done at night also.Then, the night before you are due to see your counselor, go through your morning pages for the week with a highlighter and highlight any phrases, ideas, or issues that seem like things you would like to bring up in therapy. You can either rewrite them on a separate sheet of paper or bring the morning pages in to read the highlighted sections to your therapist. Do whichever makes you feel more comfortable.
- The last tip I have for you is this: if all else fails, relax and let your therapist take the wheel. I have counseled clients who had difficulty opening up and were very quiet and it can sometimes take a while to get the ball rolling so to speak. However, I just allow them to have that space. I also ask questions to try to encourage the client to open up. If a client is really, really, really quiet, I provide them with psychoeducation. What that means is that rather than counsel them, I teach them a psychological concept such as how to improve your self-esteem or how to be more assertive. I much prefer an interactive session, but sometimes, for some clients, it takes a bit more time before that happens and that is okay because counseling has to be a safe place for you to open up.
Baring your soul to another human being can be hard, but most counselors go into the field because they possess certain personality traits such as empathy, compassion, and kindness. You should expect the information you share to be treated with dignity, respect, and care. If it is not, this is not a reflection on you — it is simply time to find a new counselor!
Jump in with both feet!
I hope you will find that by following the tips above, it will be a little easier to open up to your counselor. The counseling relationship is a very special one in that it is one-sided in many respects. If you want to get the most out of it, you have to be willing to jump in with both feet. The old adage “you get out of it what you put in” holds true.
Get to the heart of what matters to you
When you have a counselor you trust, delve into the heart of the matters that trouble you the most. Counselors are not psychic, so the counselor might think that an issue is important to you when actually a different issue is your “real” problem. Feel free to correct your counselor and tell him/her what you actually want to discuss. Also, if your counselor makes a suggestion that you disagree with, be open with them and tell them that you do not agree. This can be difficult for those of us who are people pleasers, but counselors are not there to be pleased — they are there to help you (so, ironically, they will be more pleased by knowing when you disagree with them).
Do your homework even if it seems silly
One final word of advice: do the “homework” your counselor assigns even if it seems stupid. If it seems super-stupid, ask the counselor why he/she is assigning super-stupid homework (maybe phrase it more politely). However, often counseling homework can seem obvious or peculiar, but it tends to really accelerate the counseling process and make it work better.
I hope this helps you get the most out of your counseling relationship. It is a brave thing to face yourself and take the journey inwards with the counselor as your guide. I wish you well. Please feel free to comment below.