Counselling's not helping - should it be?
January 25, 2010 9:22 AM   Subscribe

Counselling newbie, not having a great experience of it. Am I doing it wrong? Is my counsellor? Or is counselling just not the route to take, here?

Two weeks ago, I started seeing a counsellor to deal with the emotional fallout from a painful situation. (The situation in question was a breakup due to a partner's mental health issues; there's a previous Ask MeFi question on that, for the morbidly curious.) I have access to short-term counselling through my employers, so I decided to head down that route once it became clear to me that my misery was kind of overwhelming my life and I'd rather it didn't.

My first session was great. Counsellor listened, gave me some reassuring insights into the kind of behaviour that people with my ex's issues will often demonstrate, suggested some helpful ways of thinking through my pain as a grieving process.

My next session, two weeks later, was less helpful. Significantly less. Still, I have very little experience with counselling, and a sneaking suspicion that professionals in the field probably know what they're doing even when I don't get it. And so I turn to you, MeFi, to ask if any of the following are even close to what I should be expecting:

- She didn't seem to remember much about the previous session. While she did remember my name and that my problems stemmed from a breakup, that was about it.

- On top of that, she seemed to have replaced the missing information with other information. To the point of telling me "You need to accept that X hasn't happened, not keep acting as though it has," when X has not only happened but was discussed at some length in our previous session. (I appreciate the vagueness here probably isn't helping, but X is an event that can't really be interpreted subjectively, along the lines of "my dog has learnt to fetch a Frisbee.")

- On top of that, I felt somewhat steamrollered by her version of events. There was at least one point at which voices were raised, I was in tears, and she cut me off three times before I could finish a sentence. After which, she said something like "This is just quite frustrating for me - I'm just trying to get you to see," which, given that what she was trying to get me to see at that moment was again factually not the case, was kind of frustrating for me as well. (Once I did manage to get out the whole sentence correcting her, she said "Ah! Well, that changes things," but by then I was somewhat less inclined to discuss it.)

- On top of all of that - or possibly underlying all of that - I really didn't feel like she was listening to me, to my interpretation of events, or to any of the directions in which I wanted the conversation to go, within that session.

The whole experience was bizarre enough that several of my friends, having heard the situation recounted at length through confusion and muffled sobs, have suggested that she got my notes mixed up with those of another client. I'm holding out for the evil-twin theory, myself. But I'm willing to accept that this may, indeed, be some form of counselling that has a long and noble history, is exactly what I need right now, and that I'm only harming myself by asking the practice to transfer me to another counsellor (which is what I plan to do).

So, in short: am I correct in thinking that this isn't how counselling is supposed to go? Might there be any benefits from sucking it up and trying to continue with this counsellor, rather than switching to another one? And what sort of thing should I be expecting from counselling, if I turn up saying 'I need some help in coping with and thinking through a particularly upsetting situation and the effect that's having on the rest of my life'?
posted by Catseye to Health & Fitness (20 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
It may not be a matter of what's "supposed" to happen as much as it's you just not meshing with that particular counselor. Her approach may indeed work for some. But it isn't working for you. That's a perfectly valid reason to switch.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:25 AM on January 25, 2010

Get a new one. Counsellors are like dentists - if they don't get on with fixing the problem in a way which works for you, you can get a new one and think no more about it. Don't pay for the pain not to go away!
posted by greenish at 9:26 AM on January 25, 2010

Some counselors just suck. For example, I had a counselor -- at a secular university! -- tell me that what I really needed was Jesus. As an atheist I found that pretty offensive, not to mention completely inappropriate given the context.
posted by Jacqueline at 9:26 AM on January 25, 2010

If it were me, I'd find another counselor immediately. What you experienced on your second visit was unacceptable, to say the least, and you don't have to continue seeing a counselor who makes you feel that uncomfortable. There are good counselors and bad counselors, and the bad ones can do a lot of damage, so don't put up with one who seems incompetent.
posted by amyms at 9:29 AM on January 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

It sounds as if your counselor is incompetent. Mixing you up with another client after one session might be possible to get past, but cutting you off to insist on her version of events, then whining to you about her frustrations, strikes me as beyond the pale. Move on.
posted by jon1270 at 9:41 AM on January 25, 2010 [6 favorites]

Before you get a new counsellor, try to have at least one other session with your current one and discuss your feelings with her.
posted by jfricke at 9:43 AM on January 25, 2010

Sure, get a new counselor. But if a situation comes up with your next counselor in which you feel unhappy or uncomfortable, bring it up right then and there with the counselor instead of asking the internet after the fact.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:43 AM on January 25, 2010

You should give this information to her supervisor. This is really not how it's supposed to work.
posted by amethysts at 9:44 AM on January 25, 2010 [3 favorites]

Definitely find a new counsellor. I swore for years that I hated therapy and that I didn't need it and that all counsellors were jerks and couldn't help me, and then I found my current therapist. She is awesome and helps me to be more awesome.
posted by elsietheeel at 9:44 AM on January 25, 2010

You should probably, as they say, "let her go" or "encourage her to seek other opportunities" or "to spend more time with her family". Yeesh.
posted by amtho at 9:48 AM on January 25, 2010

Best answer: When it all comes down to it, you should work with a counselor that you are comfortable with. That being said (and I'm not belittling your experience at all, so please don't take it that way), counselors are human and sometimes they have bad days or get things mixed up (I speak from experience). Yes, some of them do suck. However, nothing you've shared here points to a specific "theory" or "approach" to counseling, so I think I can safely say that this is not how counseling is supposed to go. (I will say that some counselors are more confrontational that others. Some clients respond well to being "called out" in a direct manner, some don't.)

I will tell you though, that most of the time you feel worse about it before you get better. There will probably be a time where you feel stuck and where nothing is working, then it will all "click" and make sense. So, if you get a new counselor it's OK to have a session where you don't feel progress. Sometimes you have to let everything settle before it starts to make sense.

I can't really tell you whether you should find another counselor or try this one again for another session to see what happens. That is ultimately your decision. If you do go to another session with this counselor though, if things start going downhill speak up about it. Tell her that you think she may have the details of your situation confused or may be misremembering. Tell her if the direct approach she's taking (or whatever she's doing) doesn't work well for you. She can't adjust her approach if she's not aware that it's not working. Likewise, if you go to another counselor, talk to that new one about why you switched...what approach wasn't working for you, etc.

Whatever you do, just because you have a bad counselor, don't give up on counseling. As far as what to expect from counseling, you should expect lots and lots of questions from the counselor to get you thinking and exploring those emotions related to your situation. We want the client to generally "find the answers themselves" (in your situation...severe mental illness requires a different approach)...we're just there to get you to make connections between emotions, reality, and behaviors/reactions. Counselors will also teach you coping skills (like how to slow down anxious thoughts or how to reframe a situation). Honestly, it all depends on your particular situation. I wish you luck...I know what it's like to be on both sides of the desk. Don't give up!
posted by MultiFaceted at 9:56 AM on January 25, 2010

I think you would do well to address this specifically with your counselor, starting right out with telling her at the last session she was pushing you on a point she had factually wrong, that she made if very difficult for you to correct her, and that you felt like she wasn't listening to what you were saying. Anyone can make a mistake, and anyone can have a bad day. You've had a total of two experiences of her, one positive, one negative. If she deals with this well and restores your confidence, maybe the bad session was a fluke. If she deals with it poorly, is defensive or continues to jump in when you're trying to express something, maybe the good session was a fluke or beginners luck or a sort of placebo effective mainly by merit of your feelings of relief at doing something about your problems. Wherever you land developing the ability to engage your counselor about issues you're having with them is to my mind pretty critical to the process being successful.
posted by nanojath at 10:14 AM on January 25, 2010

Yes, find another counselor.
posted by Silvertree at 10:21 AM on January 25, 2010

Nthing the "find another counselor". While everyone has bad days at work, you don't need that on a second visit.

I've found there are more bad counselors than good counselors in my (limited) experience; however, don't let that stop you from looking for a good one. It's like finding a doctor or a lover - a good match doesn't happen automatically, sometimes some searching is required.
posted by _paegan_ at 10:37 AM on January 25, 2010

Sounds like to me that you got the good you were going to get from her in the first session. I had the occasional memory lapses when dealing with a client, but never would I insist that I was remembering someone else's life better than they do. She sounds pushy--you sound like a good candidate for getting a lot out of therapy, don't let a bad experience with one therapist turn you off the whole process.
posted by thebrokedown at 10:39 AM on January 25, 2010

Out of curiosity, did you and your therapist actually discuss a time frame - ie every other week or was it more along the lines of "Well, I have 1-2pm tuesday the..."?
posted by handle_unknown at 10:59 AM on January 25, 2010

Response by poster: @handle_unknown - More like the second option.
posted by Catseye at 11:07 AM on January 25, 2010

Move on.

And while I think it's usually very important to do a "summary" visit when you break with a therapist (or s/he breaks with you), if you really feel this woman isn't even listening to you, I don't much see the point.

As for what you should expect from counseling: I think a good therapist
- will listen to you carefully and ask questions until your situation is completely clear (for her and for you)
- will not take your side, coddle you or tell you what you want to hear
- will not get pulled into your patterns or emotions, but stay outside of them so as to better help you to see them
- will always be completely present, available and attentive for the time she is with you (for which you are paying her), no matter what kind of a day she's having or what's happening in her private life
- will tend towards being human rather than robotic, and curious rather than know-it all
- will admit to her mistakes

Good luck and keep looking til you find someone you can fully trust.
posted by Paris Elk at 11:12 AM on January 25, 2010 [3 favorites]

I think the bare minimum you can expect from a counselor is that s/he remembers at least half of what you told hir, is polite and kind and tries to understand your point of view before giving hirs. This one doesn't sound like she's even at that bare minimum.
posted by y6t5r4e3w2q1 at 6:08 PM on January 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

(Actually, there's more than that, there's all the ethical stuff too, but that doesn't appear to be the problem here.)
posted by y6t5r4e3w2q1 at 6:27 PM on January 25, 2010

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