What should I talk about in counselling? Part 2 of 3, Feeling safe and comfortable with your therapist

Feeling safe and comfortable

Ensuring you are feeling safe and comfortable with your therapist is part 2 of this series entitled “What should I talk about in counselling?” In part 1, I discussed how even those who feel they have a readily identifiable issue or concern will still have questions about what aspects of it to discuss, and how they may be uncertain as to the best way of talking about it. This series of blogs discusses this question in some depth, and will hopefully provide a solid overview of how someone considering a therapeutic endeavour can answer this question and get the most out of their counselling experience. In this, part 2 of this 3 part series entitled “What should I talk about in counselling?”, I will discuss what for me are the first set of the most important elements of any successful therapeutic endeavour, that you are feeling safe and comfortable with the therapist you’ve chosen to meet with.

Let’s look at these two words separately, beginning with “safe”.  Feelings of safety within a therapeutic endeavour come in many forms. They can refer to your sense of physical safety as well as your emotional safety. They are also about whether or not you believe the therapist sitting quietly across from you is able ultimately to understand, contain and actually help you with your particular difficulties.

Feelings of physical safety begin the moment you approach your therapist’s office. Do the premises look clean and tidy? Are they private and confidential yet not hidden up some back alleyway that makes you want to lock your doors as you drive towards it? As you approach the office door itself can you determine whether, should you later feel uncomfortable or unsafe for any reason (or simply change your mind about being there), you are able to simply get up and leave without any sort of difficulty? Once inside, does the office look like something used by a therapeutic professional, or are there clear signs that your therapist is merely a moonlighting cleaning contractor (nothing against cleaning contractors)? As you sit down, are you able to see the “outside” in some manner, yet also feel comfortable that nobody walking by the window can see you? Are you able to access the exit door easily should you wish to leave at any point in the session? These are important considerations and any professional therapist will have given them a great deal of thought in setting up their offices.

The other important word is “comfortable”. Defining how to feel comfortable is slightly harder to do but is equally as important as feeling “safe”. In talking about feeling comfortable I am not referring to the quality of the chair or sofa you are being asked to sit on (though I suppose it doesn’t hurt to give at least some thought to that aspect). No, what I’m talking about here is your inner sense of the therapist as a person. Do they come across as professional? Are you able to ask about qualifications and/or how they work? As you speak with them, do they listen and interact with you, or do they sit there like a silent cardboard cut-out waiting for you to speak?  If you say something awkwardly, in a way that doesn’t really express what you mean, does your therapist work to ensure that you both understand your true meaning, and are you given the space to confirm that their understanding is correct? Do they come across as fidgety and nervous, or do they have a sense of peace and presence, indicating that they have the experience needed to be able to hear literally anything you may say, and not be phased by it? In short, does your therapist come across as someone who knows what they are doing, with the life experience and presence of mind to be able to assist you, or does it all seem rather patchy and part-time?

When it comes to answering the question about what to talk about in counselling, these twinned feelings of safety and comfort are key. Once you’ve ascertained that you do, indeed feel this way, you can then turn your mind to the next two feelings mentioned in part 1 of this blog series: Is your therapist trustworthy and genuine, or does it feel as if they kind of just acting the part of being a therapist?). These two feelings are the subject of part 3 of this series.