Therapy is a space for exploration
The client-therapist relationship is not like any other relationship. For clients, and for counsellors at the start of training, it can take some getting used to. Suddenly, two people are sitting in a room and it's not clear what the rules are!
With most of our relationships - family, partner, friends, work colleagues - we have a rough idea of the do's and don'ts - we're not meant to play computer games at work; if we borrow money from a friend, we pay them back - but what are the rules in the therapy room?
Think of the therapy room as like a science laboratory: the therapist invites the client to participate in an investigation. The therapist doesn't say much about themselves, because that would take the focus away from the client. Instead, the therapist listens as the client talks about their life and, together, they try to work out what's going on. They revisit situations and ‘replay' them in slow motion: ‘What were you feeling at the time?' ‘What were you hoping would happen?' Insights can emerge.
In one sense, there are no rules in the therapy room. The client can talk about whatever they want and express any feeling. When we're free to speak our minds in this way, it can feel liberating. When there are no limits on what we can say, we can risk being completely honest. We start to discover new things about ourselves - which can feel exciting but also unsettling because it might mean embracing the unknown.
That said, from another perspective, there are some rules to therapy. These rules are designed to create framework, or ‘space', which encourages deep exploration. The framework is quite simple:
- Therapy happens at a pre-agreed time and place (usually the same every week).
- The therapist will be there; the client needs to turn up.
- The client pays a fee, which means the therapist can undertake this profession.
- It's confidential, meaning what's said in the room stays in the room (there are a few rare exceptions, such as if it there seems to be a serious risk of harm to the client or others, in which case steps may be taken to keep people safe).
- There's no contact between therapist and client outside of sessions except to re-arrange or cancel sessions.
Of course, like most things in life, sometimes a rule may be bent or broken. If this happens, the therapist will be curious about why this happened. Why did you break this rule? What was going on for you? Etc..
You might now be thinking that counselling is harder to understand than before you started reading this article! In a way, maybe that's the point: counselling is a space that is at the same time both predictable and unpredictable. It's a space like no other that's designed to help the client experience themselves in new ways that lead to some sort of insight and healing.
By Mike Brooks, psychotherapist