When you think of therapy, do you imagine someone lying on a couch with a doctor sitting out of their range of vision?
In the past, that’s how I always pictured it, because that’s how I often saw therapy portrayed in the media and popular culture (the psychologist couch is practically a genre of New Yorker cartoon). The image evokes more than anything else a sense of emotional passivity—as if the client is simply being worked on by the therapist rather than doing the work.
Now, having gone through many years of therapy personally and going to graduate school to become a counselor myself, I’ve learned how important it is for the therapeutic process to be a collaborative effort between the client and therapist. After all, some compelling reason drives a client to therapy; working together as a team makes sense. And that collaboration works best when the client feels comfortable being assertive, rather than passive, in the therapeutic process.
But what does being assertive in therapy look like? Here are a few scenarios that may arise.
Asking about areas of expertise or continued education
There are many reasons a client may seek therapy, from coping with new stressors (the current pandemic is a good example) to healing from a past trauma to grieving a loved one. Asking counselors how they are equipped to help you manage the primary problem that draws you to therapy can help you find a good fit for your needs.
The counselor may have specific training in the area for which you are seeking help, and she or he may have experience assisting clients specifically with that concern. It’s okay to ask her what certifications and training she has received, and what continuing education on that specific subject she pursues. Most states do require continuing education in order to renew professional licenses, so asking what subjects your counselor educates herself on is a perfectly acceptable question.
You may decide you want to find another therapist with training more specific to your needs. That is totally okay—common, even—and you need not worry about giving offense.
Asking about outcomes
Before starting therapy, it is normal and expected that you would have questions for your counselor about the possible outcomes of therapy. While your counselor cannot predict exactly how and when you can expect healing to occur, she can offer insight about what this can look like based on her experience and observation.
One way to phrase this question is, “What does healing typically look like for a client who presents with issues similar to mine?” Another question you could ask is, “How could my relationships improve once I start to process through this particular challenge I have?”
Having an idea of what healing can look like is important to staying motivated to work toward emotional wellness. It is helpful to think about how you would like your life to be different. For example, healing might look like maintaining awareness of and regulating your emotions more effectively, so that emotional interactions with others that may have previously thrown off your day are less affecting. These goals are ones that the counselor is trained to identify and discuss with you so that you can create a plan to work toward them together.
Another key aspect of assertiveness in therapy is to honestly communicate to your counselor if she or he does or says something that you find offensive or hurtful. Counselors are flawed people, and they may say or do things that could trigger something negative for you. As a counselor, I would want to know if I did or said something that upset or offended a client. Be brave yet humble if you need to discuss something like this with your counselor.
Asking to switch gears
As the client, your time is precious. The focus of each session is on your needs. Understanding that the therapist has training to help you meet those needs is a good starting point. They are not there to tell you what to do, tell you how to think, or tell you how you should or should not feel. They are there to help you define your emotional goals and walk next to you as you work towards those goals. But goals can change over time, and should you find yourself seeking a different long-term outcome than the one you began with, it’s important to speak up.
Even in the short term, it helps to be very honest with your counselor about what you hope to gain from each counseling session. For example, when I went through counseling, I spent most of my time processing through the dynamics of several relationships in the past and at that current time. This processing meant that most sessions were spent working our way forward through a linear progression of events.
However, life happens. Sometimes that processing would need to be put on pause when something that happened that day or week was particularly distressing. My therapist modeled how to flex with each instance like this, and how important it is to be able to switch gears quickly. I’m grateful for that model as it is one that helps me operate well as a counselor today.
Not surprisingly, the events that came up unexpectedly that I needed to process were often connected to the past events we were already processing. Being able to tie them together provided healing in and of itself because it gave me the practical tools to leave and make those connections myself in my daily life—without the help of a therapist.
Ultimately, that is the goal: to give clients the tools they need to cope with life’s difficulties on their own—not, as the stereotypical couch image may suggest, to create a long-term dependency on the therapist. Asserting your needs in therapy is not rude or unusual; it’s part of an effective therapeutic process. And as a counselor, I can tell you that we are not here to tell you what to do; we are here to partner with you to identify your goals and a path to achieve them.