A common question I’m asked in the first session is, “How many sessions do you think this will take?” And I get it. You want to know what you’re getting yourself into, because counseling does represent a significant investment of time, energy, and resources. The answer to that question is largely determined by your specific situation, but I did want to offer some general thoughts about the counseling process so this isn’t a total mystery.
Slower Than You Wanted
I hope I didn’t lose all of you with that heading because I know telling someone that anything is going to be slow usually means they’ve already moved on and will find someone who can do it faster. But the longer I’ve done this work, the more clear it’s become- change is generally a slow process. Why is this?
I recently moved back to Pennsylvania from Washington state and as we’ve been getting settled I’ve done some reflecting on the process. It took at least a year and a half just for us to process our life situation and to make the decision to move. Then there was the process of putting a move in motion- preparing a house to sell and then listing it, packing, closing up loose ends at work, saying goodbye. I think I went to Goodwill at least 73 times during this period. Then the actual move, which involved driving across the country (it is about a 40 hour drive), waiting for our stuff to arrive, and unpacking. All of it has felt really slow and tedious! Once I knew I was moving, I wanted to just get there, and once I was here I just wanted to get unpacked and settled. But it’s involved a lot of waiting and a lot of work and there’s been no fast forward button I could hit.
And it’s not just moving that is slow. As I’ve reflected further and talked about life with friends, it’s become clear that we’re all discovering that changing ourselves is an incredibly slow process as well! Whether it’s wanting to become more mature, get in shape, or change that aspect of our personality that always seems to get us snagged as we’re trying to navigate life and relationships, achieving this change is more of a grind than expected. Think about it- by the time you enter counseling you have probably been dealing with a set of issues for years and possibly decades and you finally reached the point that it was intolerable to you or the important people around you. These issues and aspects of ourselves are deep rooted and reinforced over time, and they will not be pulled up easily. Many of these aspects formed as a way to survive painful events and to protect us from a world that can be harsh in large and small ways every day. So, the first reason we find change to be slow is because we’re battling ourselves and our fundamental difficulty overturning our ways of thinking about and interacting with the world. What else contributes to this?
Relationships Are Slow
I’m really bumming you out with these headings, I know. But I would be remiss if I didn’t also point out that counseling is fundamentally the formation of a specific kind of relationship, and all relationships are generally slow. It takes time to become comfortable with a person. You need time with them to see whether they are consistent and reliable. You need to see their reactions to various situations, especially with vulnerable information, to see whether they are trustworthy. You just need time to decide whether you like someone and want to be around them period! This is especially true in counseling where you are often disclosing the most personal and emotionally laden things in your life. I’m always blown away when a client says something like, “You are the only person I’ve ever talked about this with.” That is a real gift and honor when this happens, and I don’t expect to be granted that kind of access on day 1 or even day 65. It needs to be earned, and this takes time.
When they do research about what makes therapy effective, it’s not the things you would initially guess. It’s not the therapist’s ability to have all the answers or to make incredible interpretations. That doesn’t even make the list. This makes sense- if therapy was fast or similar to getting your car fixed, it would just be about the therapist diagnosing you, inputting some information, and you could leave a finished product. But humans are much more complex than this. So what are the main factors? Things like therapist care and compassion, as well as the ability to balance nurture and challenge in the context of the relationship. I’ll never forget what Irv Yalom, a renowed Psychiatrist, said about his years of psychoanalysis- he wrote that the only moment he remembered and that had an impact on him was when he shared a painful story and his therapist leaned forward with compassion. It was the only time she left her neutral stance and stopped making interpretations, and it was the only moment that mattered. Simone Weil writes,
Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.
Life is Just Slow
Ok last heading about this, I promise. On our drive from WA to PA, we stopped in Minnesota to visit some friends who are organic farmers. As we asked questions about the farm and learned about the work, I was struck again by how much effort the whole process takes and how slow it is. The field has to be tilled and prepared, the seeds planted, and then they grow secretly and silently for months underground, before emerging and growing slowly above ground. All of this is dependent on weather and happens in season. The Bible is filled with agricultural language and metaphor about sowing and reaping, and about harvest. And it’s always understood that this is going to be a process that involves hard work, waiting, and dealing with uncertainty. It is a process that happens in season, meaning that in our own lives we will have periods of fruitfulness and periods where it seems like nothing much is happening at all. This is the nature of who we are, how relationships work, and of life itself. So why would therapy be any different? I hope this is actually encouraging for you, because it means you’re not expected to be “fixed” after a month of therapy. You can be gracious with yourself as you try to unravel how you got here and can have reasonable expectations for where you will finally arrive. Change is very possible and is deeply rewarding, but it comes in its due season, not with the click of a button. I hope to move slowly with you sometime soon. Call or email today to schedule an appointment.