Finding the right counsellor may feel like a very daunting task. With so much variety and choice out there, where do we actually start? Even more worrying is that Counselling and Psychotherapy are still not regulated as a profession, meaning that anyone could set up tomorrow and call themselves a counsellor or therapist with absolutely no training at all. We only have to listen to reports such as The Therapy Business by Jordan Dunbar on BBC Radio 4 to appreciate how concerning and difficult it can be to navigate safe choices when taking our mental health into our own hands. A decision that many of us are turning to, especially for our children and young people due to high threshold markers that govern access to NHS CAMHS support and general mental health waiting times that appear to be much longer than the 18 week NHS guideline. Even then, if target waiting times are mostly met, 18 weeks to access IAPT (Improving Access to Psychological Therapies) when we are in the depths of depression and anxiety can feel like a lifetime and which may have serious implications. For example, The Mental Health Foundation highlights a growing link between homelessness and mental health. There is also plenty of research that looks at the impact of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) when mental illness has been present within the household and suicide rates are on the increase.
Therefore this article helps you to identify not only SAFE choices when it comes to choosing the right counsellor for you but it also signposts you to different types (modality) of counselling to start to identify what would feel comfortable for you.
My own Counselling experience
A good few years ago, I remember trying for the first time to decide on the right counsellor for me. I spent hours trawling through the Counselling Directory and Psychology Today profiles because I was struggling with overwhelm and a sadness that was tightening its grip with each day that passed. I knew that I needed professional help because it was becoming harder to get through the day and I was starting to isolate myself more and more. I was going through the motions, meeting my responsibilities with no energy or enthusiasm for anything else. But looking at a sea of profiles, page after page……who the hell should I turn to? Did I even trust myself to make the right choice for me? most decisions back then seemed to be nothing but poor ones. It seems that many people are drawn initially to a friendly face, a specific gender or ethnicity and all of these factors are important personal choices. It’s perhaps also worth exploring at some point why those choices are important to you. Why is it for example that you are drawn to certain people and not others? what is it they are saying in their profile that may resonate with you? For me, based on my own naivety, (before my own tough and intensive path of counselling training) – what only mattered (which I cringe at now) was that the counsellor was super qualified. I remember thinking, if someone is going to ‘mess’ with my head then they really need to know what they’re doing!!
Whilst I couldn’t name it back then, I was unconsciously being driven by childhood messages that success and competence meant a high level of qualification and therefore nothing under degree level would do. I had no idea back then what 4 years of training at counselling diploma level entailed until I went through the process myself. It saddens me now when I think of how I dismissed diploma qualified counsellors as ‘not enough’. I also shake my head at my earlier notions that counselling was about being ‘fixed’ by someone highly qualified AKA…’ the expert’ who would give me advice on how to change my life. I have since learnt some valuable lessons.
Firstly that whilst a counsellor has a duty of care towards me and is to act in my best interests at all times, they are not responsible FOR me. It is not the counsellor’s responsibility to ‘heal’ us. We have to show up and commit to the process. Over time as the relationship strengthens, we have to be responsible for our own self-reflections and owning our thoughts, feelings and behaviours by being able to access the vulnerability required to truly face ourselves and our difficult life experiences. However, feeling safe enough to be vulnerable can be difficult at the best of times and will completely depend on the strength of the therapeutic relationship.
I have also learnt that whilst qualifications and competence are important, the amount of letters after a counsellors name is no longer the be-all and end-all for me. I have come to realise that no one is more of an expert on me than I am and the level of qualification is not necessarily an indicator of how well a counsellor can facilitate that therapeutic relationship.
Here you can find out more about what counselling is but for me, as a Person-Centred/ integrative/pluralistic counsellor, it’s primary focus is about the relationship; a therapeutic alliance that builds and meets the client’s needs when they experience core conditions from the therapist- congruence empathy and unconditional positive regard. Therefore, in essence, there are as many types of counselling as there are counsellors and psychotherapists as every therapeutic relationship is different.
According to Mearns & Cooper (2005) “a state of profound contact and engagement between two people in which each person is fully real with the other and able to understand and value the others experiences at a high level.” appears to be a strong predictor of counselling outcomes. The ability to achieve this level of depth is dependant on certain therapist/client factors, including:-
- When the therapist is seen as genuinely caring, offering something boundaried but over and above what’s expected and who is experienced as human and compassionate, competent, safe and trustworthy, warm, open and adaptable.
- When the client, knows what they want from therapy, has considered their choice of therapy and is ready to engage, open up and take a leap of faith, allowing themselves to be vulnerable. (McMillan & McLeod, 2006; Knox 2006, Knox & Cooper 2010)
It stands to reason then, that to achieve a positive outcome, the right counsellor for you is likely to be someone that can demonstrate the therapist factors mentioned above in an authentic way, which in turn leaves you feeling comfortable that you could open up, be vulnerable and take a leap of faith with that person when you feel ready.
You may, however, be reading this thinking that you have completely lost any ability to trust in yourself, your decisions, or in others, so how on earth could you trust in your ability in finding the right counsellor?
These general tips will help ensure that at the very least, you find a counsellor that is competent and safe.
General considerations when choosing the right counsellor.
- They are registered with a known governing body, Eg BACP, UKCP, NCS. ( Professional Standards Authority) Registration means that they have been verified as competent with industry-recognised qualifications and who are expected to adhere to high professional and ethical standards. (It is still the case in the UK that counselling is unregulated, so anyone can set up and call themselves a counsellor. Being registered therefore is vital particularly for your emotional safety and wellbeing.)
- They NEGOTIATE a working agreement with you. Counselling is about building a trusting relationship where you are at the centre of it. Therefore, it’s really important for the right counsellor to take your needs and expectations of counselling on board and find a way of working together that feels right for you. If they can’t meet your expectation then a good counsellor will be honest about that so that you can make an informed decision on how to move forward.
- They are open and transparent with their policies and terms and conditions including how you can complain or offer feedback so that the work always feels like it is meeting your expectations.
- They are GDPR compliant and have ICO membership and/or up-to-date privacy/data protection policies so that you can trust that personal information is kept confidential.
- Communication from them is client-centred, respectful, clear, fair, non-judgemental and non-discriminatory. It is YOUR choice at the end of the day whether their expectations are agreeable with yours. How they communicate with you can give you a good indicator of how relaxed you feel in their presence. For counselling to work, trust and a real understanding of your world from your perspective are key elements to positive change, regardless of the modality.
- They take their therapeutic responsibility and competence seriously. Whilst most therapists are passionate about their work it only takes listening to the Radio 4 documentary above or looking at professional conduct notices to realise that even within the Professional Standards Authority, standards do slip. What’s even more concerning is that there are no sanctions available for those who are struck off from membership registers to ensure that they do not continue practising. Again, it’s vital therefore to do your research to ensure that you choose a registered counsellor.
- Confirmation of their qualifications and insurance certificates are readily available.
- They demonstrate professional boundaries throughout the initial consultation and subsequent sessions with you.
- They are aware of their limits in terms of specialist knowledge and are prepared to signpost you to a more suitable service if necessary.
- A student counsellor (if offered by an agency) is also registered with a recognised membership and the agency have robust policies in place to support their growth and development. Don’t rule out seeing a student. They are likely to be up-to-date with current theory, skills and knowledge and very conscientious due to their hunger to learn. Their enthusiasm, energy and passion may feel quite refreshing. From my own teaching experience, I have been blown away by the insight, self-awareness and skills present in some students. It’s not always about the level of experience, some are naturally gifted. As an added bonus, it’s likely that your session fee would be reduced.
Whilst this section has highlighted some of the pitfalls of therapy, please remember that there are thousands of talented, experienced and gifted therapist out there that can support you in a healthy and positive way.
Working out your expectations and needs from the right counsellor.
So, you feel that counselling could help, but help you with what exactly? Having some clarity on what you would like to achieve from counselling is a good place to start along with reflections on the following questions.
- What is it you want to achieve from counselling?
- Are you looking for a space to explore and gain a greater understanding of you and your world?
- Are you wanting a more structured approach to overcome a specific issue?
- Would you be interested in working creatively with the use of different resources or do you want to just talk?
- Are you looking for an integrative or perhaps more pluralistic approach?
- What kind of setting would you prefer? Many therapists in private practice work from home which can create a warm and cosy environment. Others rent therapeutic space and some prefer to work outdoors rather than be confined to four walls.
- Do you want face-to-face counselling or would you prefer online contact through skype for example or via email/phone?
- Perhaps travelling times and the therapist’s availability is also a consideration?
- Do you have a specific reason for counselling or are you unsure yet of exactly what it is you need support with?
- How much time and finances do you have to commit to counselling?
- Can you afford long-term counselling ( usually anything from 12 sessions +) or do you need to look for something more short-term ( 12 sessions or less)?
- Do you want to explore patterns of behaviour in order to facilitate change in the way you relate to the world and to others?
- Do you want work to do at home in-between sessions?
- Do you have any preference on the gender, ethnicity or cultural background of the counsellor?
- If you’ve had counselling before, what worked, what didn’t and why?
- Are you looking for individual, couples or group therapy?
- What would successful counselling look like to you? Can the therapist manage that expectation? Remember that no therapist has a magic wand. Counselling success will be dependent on many variables. Difficulties arising from complex trauma, for example, are likely to involve longer-term work.
For further information on the different types of counselling available, click on the Counselling Directory’s summary here.
A good counsellor does not underestimate just how difficult it can be to reach out and how much energy it can take for you to initiate contact with a complete stranger and ask for help. They will be happy and comfortable to answer any questions you may have before you meet and there would be no obligation or coercion for you to meet or commit unless you feel sure about your choice in the counsellor. They will also respect your autonomy if you decide later on that the therapy isn’t working. If the relationship and trust aren’t building for you, then it’s worth exploring that in therapy to see if changes can be made or whether a break or a new counsellor would be the way forward. Without a strong therapeutic alliance, it is my opinion that effective change is unlikely to occur.
Any counsellor worth their salt will celebrate and embrace you honouring your true self and taking responsibility for what you need. They will also be keen to learn and understand from feedback what worked for you, what didn’t and why. Equally, I hear of clients that are unhappy or frustrated with their counsellor but stay with them out of fear of hurting their feelings. As mentioned at the beginning of the article, the only person responsible for you is YOU so it is vital to find the strength to leave a therapeutic space that isn’t working for you.
Lastly, rather than the concept of a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ therapist, perhaps it’s more productive to approach potential therapists with openness and curiosity with some understanding of what you are looking for, what you can expect from therapy and a willingness to reflect on those interaction. It’s okay not to commit and it’s okay to take your time to decide.
We hope this article gives you lots of information to think about to help you choose the right counsellor / therapist for you and if things still don’t work out then please know that’s okay too. It may feel frustrating to tell your story a few times if it takes a number of trial and errors before you find the right fit. But you owe it yourself to keep going until you find genuine care, kindness, professionialism, thoughtfulness, flexibility, knowledge and skill, humility, empathy, congruence, transparency, honesty, and someone who you feel reallly at ease with who can offer a setting that feels comfortable – your healing depends on it.
Even when you do find the right counsellor / therapist, they may not stay the right counsellor. It is possible that through the growth and progress you make, your counselling needs may change with that new growth, where perhaps you are ready to be challenged more for example. You can only make your decision with the information that you have available at the time so do your homework in order to choose wisely.
If you have any further queries or concerns around choosing the right counsellor you can always private message us on our business Facebook page – https://www.facebook.com/Courage2becounsellingservices/or through our contact form on https://www.courage2be.co.uk
On behalf of the Courage2Be team, I wish you all the best on your counselling journey.