Not too long ago, I read a letter that I’d written to my parents at age 16. In it, I wondered if my path led to counseling as a profession. I didn’t know a counselor then, but I had witnessed that there was something transformative about listening kindly, and it had made an impression on my 16 year old heart.
Then at one point during my college years, I was overwhelmed with stress. I found my own counselor. He was a wise psychotherapist I knew from church. Decades later, I can still recall the pattern of our conversations:
Me: “Life is really hard!”
Therapist: “I can see that. It is really hard for you right now.”
Me: <deep sigh>
Therapist: “So…what do you think you’re going to do about it?”
I began to generate some ideas about what to do. He gave me feedback, and we refined the plan. After our session, I went out into the world and tested out the ideas. The next time we met, we’d talk about how it had gone and often celebrate some small success.
And then, I said to him, “Life is still kinda hard.” So we cycled back through that pattern above. He heard me thoughtfully, and then shifted the discussion to what I might do to change things.
Before long, I was doing a lot better. I had a better perspective and a newfound belief in my abilities to overcome adversity. By changing things for myself, I had changed myself.
And that’s why I’m here. That’s why I do what I do: to help people make change.
— Wayne Martin
The First Session
When we meet with a new client, we start by getting to know each other. It’s important to understand where people come from, where they find themselves now, and where they want to go.
After that wide-angle perspective, we then zoom in more closely on how things are for them now. What stresses, worries, or problems do they face? How have they tried to help themselves, and how did it go? We frame some meaningful goals, and then consider the vital question: What strengths do they bring to the table?
At the end of the first session, we usually have a game plan developing in my mind. We talk it through, and usually edit it together. Then, if we both feel good about moving forward, we plan for more sessions with a focus on what we can do together through counseling and other strategies to help them reach their goals.
In the sessions that follow, we work on achieving those goals.
The approach we use depends on what my client wants to accomplish in counseling. Treatment frequently involves strategies like neurofeedback to help activate focus and emotional balance, biofeedback to strengthen stress resilience, meditation to bring calm and clarity, or hypnosis to help change habits on a deep level. While those strategies sometimes get noticed the most, it’s really counseling that holds it all together.
In counseling sessions, we first want to understand my client’s experience by listening well. We want our office to be a safe place where compassionate listening helps someone’s important stories to unfold.
It’s vital for both of us to bring compassion to that very real expression of stress, frustration, and pain. The way that you sit with a person’s story in the counseling office matters a great deal (and that’s true when you hear yourself telling your story, too!).
Having read this far, you’re no doubt tuning in to how much importance we place on compassion. We’ve learned this from Mindful Self-Compassion, a way of blending mindfulness and the practice of being a really good friend to yourself. This way of thinking about human suffering has a lot to offer the counseling process, and has become the most helpful way we think about our client’s reality. Mindful Self-Compassion keeps the focus on the present, how our client’s stresses and strains are the stuff of living our very real human lives, and how bringing a spirit of kindness and compassion to this experience of the present creates the conditions that help people to change in ways that matter.
We might also use other strategies that have proven to help people. Having worked as a psychotherapists for over 28 years, we’ve learned many ways to effect change — and if one doesn’t seem to gain traction, then we can switch over to another.
For example, in working with sleep or anxiety problems, it helps to have a strong grasp of how behavioral psychology points the way to helpful solutions, but at times deep introspection will help most with moving my client forward. With grief or trauma, a deep understanding of the physiology that underlies the way that the brain and body have encoded the loss can lead to effective ways to make things better. At times, however, what’s called for instead are simple behavioral changes to give a person some space to breathe.
It’s crucial that we track how well counseling is working, and after we thoughtfully set goals at the beginning, we check in on progress regularly. We usually ask our clients to rate progress on a simple 0-10 scale because it’s a quick and relevant way to know how we’re doing. While it’s more obvious that we want to correct things when we’re not making expected progress, we also want to know when things go better than anticipated and ask why that happened.
Completing The Work Together
The counseling process has a natural progression, from beginning through the middle to the end. After a client has changed things for themselves (and changed themselves in the process), it’s time to look at the original goals as a team and ask some key questions: Did we accomplish what truly mattered? Are there some other concerns that we still need to tackle in counseling? Have they shown themselves newfound strengths that they’re ready to use independently?
It’s usually clear when we’re nearing the end of our counseling work together, and that’s time to celebrate the hard work done well! As we wrap up, it’s often helpful to review the work done and to talk about how to anticipate and respond to life’s challenges independently.
We’re truly privileged to be able to collaborate in the unfolding of remarkable stories of courage, growth, and change. Click here if you are interested in becoming a client of ours.