Counseling 101: You've got to work on you, too

Sure, I’d be glad to analyze you, but be motivated to improve, says Chatham psychology professor Anthony Isacco

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When I tell people that I am a psychologist, I typically receive one of the following reactions:

• You can analyze me!

• You can analyze my [child, friend, family member, wife, husband, boyfriend, girlfriend]!

• Can you fix my [child, friend, family member, wife, husband, boyfriend, girlfriend]?

• I bet you could write a good case study on my family.

• Well, (awkward silence) nice talking to you (person walks away).

My favorite reaction, though, starts something like this, “I went to a psychologist once and [insert terrible experience].”

Yes, going to a psychologist for counseling is not for everyone and not every psychologist is great at counseling. I’m sorry for your negative experience. There are many great psychologists/​counselors out there who are effective, caring and trustworthy. Below are some tips to facilitate a better counseling experience.

Do your research

Every counselor has different education, training, degrees and specialties. If you’re struggling with depression, you want to go to a counselor who has some experience and expertise with treating depression. The key is finding a counselor who can help you with your specific problem.

There are good websites that can help you research counselors in your area and narrow in on which one can help you. Start with Psychology Today therapists at therapists.psychologytoday.com.

Word-of-mouth referrals from your physician or priest/​clergy/​pastor/​rabbi can also be helpful, as they often make mental health referrals and may have a list of trusted counselors in the area.

Learn some terminology

A psychologist who does counseling likely has a doctoral degree (Ph.D. or Psy.D.) in clinical or counseling psychology. These are very similar degrees and licensed at the state level in the same way. Other professions also provide counseling. A psychiatrist, for example, has an M.D. and can prescribe psychotropic medications. There are also clinical social workers and masters-level counselors. Both usually get licensed by the state as a minimal credential.

Obviously, counselors with a Ph.D., Psy.D. or M.D. have more education than a counselor with a master’s degree. More education does not necessarily mean more competence. Personally, I trust counselors (regardless of education level) who are licensed; to me, it means that they went the extra step to earn the necessary credential to practice in the field and are operating under their field’s ethical code.

Counselors also use different therapies. Common approaches are cognitive-behavioral therapy, psychoanalysis and person-centered therapy. Cognitive-behavorial therapy is generally a short-term approach that focuses on skill-building and action. Psychoanalysis, on the other hand, is a longer-term approach that aims at fostering in-depth insight from the client. Try researching some of the different therapies and determining which approach may fit you best.

Test the market

You looked around, asked around. Now, make a few visits. It is perfectly fine to visit different counselors before making a commitment. Meeting a counselor in person allows you to get a sense of the connection and comfort you would have in disclosing sensitive information to that person. The goal is to trust the counselor. It is OK to come prepared with questions about the counselor’s experience with your problem, approach to counseling, pricing, scheduling, etc.

It’s on you

Start with asking yourself, what can I change? And then ask yourself, how motivated am I to change?

The American Psychological Association issued an official statement in 2012 based on a thorough review of the scientific literature. It indicated that counseling (individual, group and couples/​families) is effective in alleviating symptoms and enhancing quality of life. However, counseling is limited in its effectiveness — it’s meant to help YOU change.

It has become common for a client to expect a counselor to get someone else in his or her life to change. I’m sorry, but you’re the one in the office, so you’re the one who has to work on changing if counseling is going to work. If you are not motivated to put in the work to improve and change, then the world’s greatest counselor is not going to be able to help you.

Give it a few sessions

It is unlikely that your problem appeared overnight. It was probably a long time in the works. So, expecting your problem to go away after one visit with a counselor is unrealistic. It takes time and work for things to get better.

Talk to your counselor about how many sessions it may take before a positive effect can be expected. There are many problems that can be dealt with effectively through short-term counseling (four to 20 sessions) while other problems require more extensive, long-term therapy.

I have seen many people’s lives transformed through counseling. Following the tips above can contribute to a thoughtful and, dare I say, positive experience with a psychologist. Try out the tips, and then I’d be happy to analyze you, your family and all of your friends!

Anthony Isacco is an assistant professor for graduate psychology programs at Chatham University (aisacco@chatham.edu).


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