“Counseling isn’t working,” she told me. “It’s supposed to help, but it’s not. I just don’t think counseling is for me.”
It’s a valid statement—one that I, as a counselor, would most definitely want to know if someone I was working with felt this way. While most people do, in fact, make progress in counseling, there are certainly times when the therapy process does not seem to be working. If that is the case, here are four questions that I would recommend for consideration.
1. Is my counselor a good fit?
Counseling is about a partnership between you and a counselor that works towards specific goals. The fancy word we use in the counseling world when addressing fit is therapeutic alliance. Essentially, it refers to the relationship between the client and counselor. A strong therapeutic alliance (which is based on a good fit) is one of the most significant indicators of change. You need to trust your counselor for the maximum amount of progress. Just like getting along with every single person that you meet is unlikely, the same applies in the counseling office. Not every counselor is a good fit for every client that walks through the doors.
Questions that help determine a good fit might be: Do you like and respect your counselor? Do you leave the office feeling heard and valued? Do you like the style of counseling that your counselor provides? Are you able to trust your counselor with the most vulnerable pieces of your story? Does your counselor use techniques that are applicable to what you are going through?
2. Have I been fully honest with my counselor?
The counseling process is sometimes like putting together a puzzle. I am often trying to fit together the seemingly random pieces of the stories clients share to create a fuller and more meaningful picture. If significant puzzle pieces are missing (if important information has been withheld), it is difficult to do my job. Not all withholding of information is intentional, but counselors can only help based on the information that they know. I understand that there is a fair amount of vulnerability in sharing shameful, ugly, or hurtful pieces of your story, but honesty, just like fit, is key for successful counseling.
Questions that help zone in on honesty might be: Does your counselor know all of the details? Have you been honest about how you are feeling, what you are thinking about, and the things that have happened in your past? It is possible that you are withholding information (intentionally or unintentionally)? If so, what is making it difficult to share those things?
3. Am I working outside of the office on the things that I discuss in the office?
If you are not putting in the work outside of your sessions, it might appear that counseling is not working. Counseling is hard work. Learning new things and unlearning old habits takes time, effort, and energy. Athletes who want to strengthen their skills know that practice and repetition are key. The same thing is true for counseling. Doing your homework and devoting time and energy to the things you are learning in counseling in your everyday life will maximize the success. If the only time you are working to challenge your thinking patterns or implement new coping strategies is during your therapy sessions, it’s unlikely you will notice drastic improvements in your day-to-day life in the short term, and your progress will be slower and/or more limited.
Questions pertaining to homework might be: Am I working on the things my counselor suggests? How often do I implement the coping strategies I am working on in a day? Where am I intentionally practicing what I am learning?
4. Do I have the correct expectations surrounding change?
Most people sign up for counseling because they want something to change. They want to have better relationships, feel less anxious, find motivation, and the list could go on. The thing about change is that it is often hard work. A desire to change is not necessarily enough. Change requires motivation, intentionality, and commitment. Without a desire to change and full commitment to the work required, change is unlikely. There are certainly times when people come to counseling wanting things to be better but do not actually desire to do the work required for change.
There are also times where counseling is working—change is happening—but the expectations/desired outcomes are different, and therefore makes counseling appear to not work. Even when progress is being made, it does not necessarily mean that a problem is eliminated. For example, if a client is expecting that she will not experience anxiety after going through counseling and she ends up feeling anxious, she might walk away feeling like counseling is not working. This is where I encourage taking a step back. Is she able to implement new coping strategies that lessen the intensity of anxiety? If yes, counseling is working. Is she experiencing anxiety less frequently than before? If yes, then counseling is likely working. The goals/expectations need to be realistic, and your counselor should be able to walk through those expectations with you. There are times when the problem does go away completely, but usually, counseling helps develop coping strategies so that the problems are less intense or occur less frequently, and this may be a different outcome than what some people expect.
Questions for consideration: Do I want to change? What changes am I looking for? What is my intended outcome for counseling, and is this a realistic expectation? Am I fully committed to the work that is required for changing? What will this change require of me and mean for me?
If you find yourself questioning whether counseling is working, spending time thinking through these questions may be a worthwhile endeavor. Before giving up, I would like to encourage you to have a conversation with your counselor. Together, you might be able to problem solve what is getting in the way of your progress. At the end of the day, counseling is about you, the client, and it should be benefitting you in some way.