Having been in the counseling room for quite a while now, I sometimes forget how awkward the first encounter with a new therapist must feel to a client. I really do my best to put them at ease, but it’s still usually an adjustment.
I think what often makes the first meeting particularly uncomfortable is when the client is carrying a lot of shame and doesn’t want to talk about it directly. That is really understandable. They may be testing the water for safety. “Can I trust this counselor person? Will he understand me? Will she judge me? Is it really going to help?”
Forming a trust bond is the first important step of good counseling. The clinical term for this bond is the “therapeutic alliance”. Without a strong therapeutic alliance, no real transparency is likely to occur. And without transparency, any healing will be superficial.
It’s hard to talk honestly about our failures, frustrations, fears, insecurities, and especially our outright deliberate sins. Most people have spent a lot of their life pursuing “image management.” I know I have. As a matter of fact I probably spent the first several of my own personal counseling sessions trying to look better than I was. It wasn’t until I felt genuine care from my counselor and knew that I was safe, that I could become more vulnerable. But image management can also be a form of denial or deliberate deceit that needs to be broken – especially important with couples counseling.
I have noticed that for some, it is easier to write about the hard stuff. That is why we use a pretty comprehensive history and intake form. Their outward appearance may not match the pain that is revealed in their intake form or their personal journals. I encourage clients to bring their written thoughts into session when this is the case for them. There is a lot of power released or surrendered in reading one’s private thoughts in front of another person.
As a counselor, I am grateful for the trust that is placed in me and do not take it for granted. For some people it is the first time that they have shared deep wounds, long buried and frightening in intensity. Although often painful to hear, it is an honor to be able to take the journey with a client for the first time. I am proud of them and the courage that it takes to be truthful in sharing the unlovely or horrific.
As we get closer to a new year, I pray for all the people that will step forward and make that first call next year. For some it will be dealing with hurts from the past. For others it will be admitting powerlessness over an addiction or behavior. And for many it will be marital or other relationship issues, both positive (pre-married counseling) or troublesome.
Regardless, I am hoping that our clients current and future will see Christ as the true healer, and not us. We are simply facilitators – imperfect co-workers in the business of wholeness.