6 Signs of a Good Counselor
Tuesday, February 19, 2013Tweet
One of the reasons I waited before quitting my job was because I wanted to get in to see a counselor first. Initially this was to help me decide whether or not to quit, but when it took over a month to get an appointment (don't get me started on how ridiculously difficult it is for even a person with good mental health to make a counseling appointment), I ended up going to see her the night before I was planning to hand in my resignation.
I had wanted to quit earlier that week -- it was awkward to deflect comments about whether I wanted to go to an upcoming conference -- but I was such a huge ball of anxiety about quitting that I wanted to make sure I wasn't going to break into tears while doing so, and that I wasn't going to feel horrible about myself afterwards or be super-awkward if they wanted me to stay for another two weeks.
Thankfully, the counselor I ended up with was fantastic. You never know; Mike and I have both had awful experiences with counselors. However, we both went to a counselor during college who was great, and the help she gave me in dealing with the stress of college and with various relationship issues solidified my belief that just about anyone can benefit from a good counselor.
Rather than sharing "red flags" of bad counseling experiences, I wanted to share some "green flags," things that I appreciated about this counselor that I saw recently. This comes with a large caveat that what you need from a counselor may be different than what I need. You may want someone who primarily listens and affirms your feelings, or someone who gives you specific advice. You may want someone who provides examples from their personal life, or someone who doesn't share any details about their personal life. You may want someone who gives you a specific diagnosis to explain mental health issues you may be having, or someone who eschews labels when therapy can be suggested without them.
All that said, I believe the best way to figure out what your preferences are in this regard is to try out counseling and pay attention to whether it makes you feel better or worse, and to what specific aspects you react positively or negatively.
So here are some of the green flags that told me during this one session that this counselor was a good one:
1) She was upfront that she might not be a good fit, and gave me an easy out.
She explained at the beginning that counseling requires a good counselor-client fit, and that if that didn't turn out to be the case for us, she would not be offended and we would probably both be able to tell it wasn't working. She said that I was welcome to tell her directly if I wanted to try a different counselor, but that if I didn't feel comfortable doing that I could call the front desk and ask them to assign me to a different counselor. It was clear from the outset that she wanted to make sure I was completely comfortable while in counseling and not make it difficult or awkward for me to make that a reality.
2) She balanced structure with letting me lead the conversation.
I appreciated that she outlined at the beginning that she would have some basic information to give me (the part above, and information about confidentiality), then she would ask me some background questions to get to know me a little better, and then she would leave time for me to discuss the specific reason I'd come. This made me feel like she had things under control and I knew what to expect, without feeling controlled or boxed in. If she'd spent the whole session asking me detailed questions about my family and we never got to talk about work, I would have been frustrated and panicky since I'd come specifically to prepare for the following day. At the same time, I understood that she wanted to get some context from me first -- like how old was I, where was I from, how big was my family, how long had I been married -- to better understand the larger scope of my life in which this particular issue fell.
3) She trusted me and didn't talk down to me.
This was extremely important to me. When I told her that I had no major mental health issues, she accepted this as fact rather than saying, "Well, we'll see about that." She treated me like an expert on my own life. When I said I'd had counseling before and that it had gone well, she took the cue that she didn't need to go over Counseling 101 with me, and framed the information above about good fit and confidentiality in a way that communicated "You probably already know this, but..." not "Here are some brand-new concepts I'm going to introduce you to." Even when she was providing me specific suggestions, she did it with an attitude of "Here's something you could try to see if it helps" and not "OK, here's the part where I solve your problem." Overall, I felt that my maturity and intelligence was acknowledged and respected.
4) She asked really great questions.
The standard joke about counselors is that they just sit there and repeatedly ask, "And how did you feel about that?" The questions she asked were not just randomly trying to flesh out details of what I was telling her, but were directly connected to trying to help me better deal with the situation. For example, she asked me how I'd gone from giving my workplace the benefit of the doubt that things were going to improve to feeling completely demoralized, which helped me pinpoint how starting to apply for new jobs had revealed the beating my self-esteem had taken. Then we could talk about how to reframe my view of myself to help me with my job applications, recognizing that the stellar work I'd done at every other job was a much better indicator of my abilities than this one place that wasn't allowing me to demonstrate my skills.
5) She helped me recognize disordered patterns of thinking.
This is what I love most about good counselors and why I sought one out initially. I recognized that my anxiety was driving me in circles of "I hate this job - I'd be happier if I quit - What if I end up in a bad job again - At least I'm getting a paycheck - But I hate this job" and I needed someone to break me out of it. She helped me acknowledge things like no one knows what the future will bring, but you know whether you're happy right now, and you're not. When I said something about how, if I couldn't find another job, I would be upset with myself for leaving a perfectly good job, she pointed out that I'd just spent 10 minutes outlining all of the ways that it was not a perfectly good job.
6) She isolated the problems and provided concrete suggestions.
A lot of my anxiety came from the uncertainty of not knowing how my bosses were going to react, whether they would want me to stay another two weeks, etc. She helped me separate the things I had control over (my decision to quit, how to word my resignation letter) from the things I had no control over (how they would feel about me leaving, what they would say). We talked about how I knew intellectually that this was the right decision, that I couldn't predict the future, etc., but that I was having a hard time getting my emotions to that point, so she gave me specific mind and body techniques for reigning in my anxiety when I started worrying about things in the future or things I had no control over. She also helped me identify that I felt unsure about what to say when handing in my resignation and how to explain to my coworkers why I was leaving, so we practiced what I wanted to say until it sounded natural. This came in extremely useful when my boss wanted to grill me about the reasons I was leaving and, having already determined that giving specific reasons would not be productive, I was able to keep repeating the irrefutable "It's just not a good fit."
By the end of the session, I felt much better and told her enthusiastically that it had been helpful and that I would like to schedule a follow-up appointment in a few weeks.
Clearly I am a big proponent of counseling/therapy, and I'm happy to answer any questions you might have about what (good) counseling is like. I also recommend this post on how to find a counselor you can afford if it's not covered through your health insurance.
What are some other signs of a good counselor? What do you look for in a counselor?