Enhance the Counseling Experience

Considering professional counseling? If so, we’re sure you want to take steps to increase the likelihood of success. Here are some suggestions: First of all, be willing to take an active role in counseling and work hard to produce needed changes in your behavior. Second, trust and be willing to “open up” to the counselor, and follow recommendations made by the counselor. Third, and perhaps most importantly, the effectiveness of counseling is helped enormously if you believe it will be helpful.

This last item might remind you of the placebo-effect, which means that something works only because you believe it will work. However, we don’t mean to suggest that successful counseling is simply a placebo effect. Notice, for example, that if you believe in a successful outcome, you will also be more likely to work hard, stay optimistic and confident, trust the counselor, and persevere when the going gets tough. It is those qualities and actions that result in successful counseling, not some sort of magical placebo effect. The point here is simple: Counseling is not like taking an aspirin, lying down, and waiting for your headache to subside. Counseling requires you to take an active role in your treatment. If you sincerely believe that it can bring you positive benefits, you will be more likely to engage in actions that will bring you benefits.

Brian and Lee don’t know each other, but they are both clients of psychologist Dr. Wiley, who is treating them for social anxiety. They have each had three sessions with Wiley, and he has suggested to each one that they join his weekly support group of people who are also struggling with social anxiety. Later that day, Brian says to his wife, “I’m really upbeat about this group. I’ll be anxious in a group of strangers, but in the long run I think it’s going to pay off.” Brian is optimistic. Lee, on the other hand, is pessimistic. He says to his wife, “I’m pretty sure this group thing is going to be a big waste of time. But I told Dr. Wiley I’d give it a shot, so what the hell.”

After the first group session, Brian is on his bus when a stranger sits down next to him and starts reading the paper. Brian thinks, “One guy in the group said that having a simple exchange with a stranger helped him. OK, deep breath and let’s go for it.” Brian looks at the stranger and says, “This heat wave has been brutal. Hope it breaks soon.” The man looks over at him and says, “Absolutely! It’s too hot,” and returns to his paper. Brian thinks, “Wow! It worked! I started a conversation and he treated me OK, not like I’m some kind of weird loser! This is the start of a new me.”

Same scene on Lee’s bus. A stranger is next to him, and he thinks, “That guy in the support group said a brief chat with a stranger helped him. It’s nonsense, but I’ll try it.” He looks at the stranger and says, “This heat wave has been brutal. Hope it breaks soon.” The man looks over at him and says, “Absolutely! It’s too hot,” and returns to his paper. Lee is crushed. “My God, I said something and what do I get in return? Two or three words? That’s it? This whole damn counseling thing is a big waste of time and money.”

Brian and Lee have each experienced a self-fulfilling prophesy. Brian the optimist puts a positive spin on the exchange with the stranger, while Lee the pessimist interprets the same experience as worthless. Brian’s positive attitude causes him to interpret his interaction with the stranger in an upbeat way, and he is inspired to work toward improvement. Lee’s negative attitude causes him to interpret the stranger’s response as rejection, and conclude that his sessions are useless. A positive attitude won’t guarantee that counseling will go well, but it helps to believe that counseling is going to work for it to have a reasonable chance of working for you. A negative attitude, on the other hand, greatly increases the chances that counseling will be ineffective.

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