8 Ways to Make the Most of Counseling

“A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” ~ Paul Romer

You’ve taken the step to schedule your first appointment with a psychotherapist or a counselor. However, you are nervous and worried you may not know what to do when you get there.

You have all these thoughts running through your head, like”Will they judge me? Will it really help?” You consider cancelling the appointment, but you’re in a crisis or trying to prevent a crisis. In the end, you decide you are going even though you are nervous.

Each counselor has a little different approach and personality. So once you find a counselor that is a good match for you, I know you want to get the most out of your investment in time and money. Here are some ideas on how to make the most of the counseling experience once you get started.

Tip #1: Be Honest

You have nothing to lose by being honest. The counselor works under strict client-therapist confidentiality laws to keep everything you discuss completely private (unless you are a danger to yourself or others). Tell them about yourself and be as open as you can about your thoughts, emotions, and behavior. Most therapists aren’t in this business to judge you, but to lend a hand by guiding and coaching you to greater clarity and mastery of your goals.

Tip #2: Identify Counseling Goals

Know what goals you’d like to work on in counseling. While counselors’ specialties vary, your goals can include the following areas: emotional, relational, behavioral, health, career, or work. Identifying your goals will help you focus what you most want to talk about in your sessions, and it will help you talk about progress toward your goals as you move forward.

Tip #3: Keep a Counseling Journal

Often counselors ask questions in session that you may not have the answer to, but you want to reflect on it later. Decide if you want to use a password-protected file on your phone or a paper journal to record your counseling goals, reflections, attempts, and progress. It’s just as important to focus on problems as it is progress. Keeping a personal record of your emotional and relational goals and reflections will help increase your focus, motivation, and self-awareness.

Tip #4: Prepare for Sessions

Get your journal or notebook out before your session and reflect on what you’ve been working on, thinking about, or stuck on. Write down any questions you have or any topics you want to focus on in the next session, so you can start the session focused on what’s most important to you. Thinking space can be challenging to carve out these days with the demands of every day life, but it will help you make the most of your time in session.

Tip #5: Speak Up Before End

Speak up if you are ever thinking about ending counseling, whether it’s due to making progress, financial challenges, or personality clashes. Let the counselor know that you are done for now, so you can have time to summarize and celebrate all your hard work. Or if the counseling isn’t going well for you and you feel stuck, speak up about this too. Even if you are confused or hurt by something that was said in session, it’s good practice for being open about difficult topics. If the counselor-client isn’t a good match, this gives the therapist an opportunity to offer other options.

Tip #6: Own Your Progress

In a crisis, we often want relief as soon as possible and feel like we’ve run out of options. When a person feels really uncomfortable, they may put pressure on a helping or medical professional to fix them. Pressuring the therapist to fix you will leave you feeling more hopeless and frustrated. And getting advice can rob you of the opportunity to find your own solutions and develop more confidence when faced with challenges. Instead of pressuring the therapist, own your problem and your progress, and collaborate with your helping professional.

Tip #7: Keep Counseling Private

Establish boundaries around your therapy sessions. Wait to share what you are working on in counseling until you are starting to make progress. Also resist the urge to use the therapist’s expert opinion to speak up to loved ones. Instead work on defining yourself to your loved ones, not leaning on your therapist to speak for you. It’s very different to say what you are going to do vs what your therapist thinks you should do. Letting the expert prop you up blocks confidence, empowerment, and intimacy from growing.

Tip #8: Try Mental Health Prevention

Lastly, you don’t have to wait until there is a crisis to come to counseling. While a crisis is motivating and a time where patterns are more easily observed, you can also attend counseling before your marriage or emotions are at a crisis point. Many people come to counseling to receive coaching on personal or relationship growth goals. Others continue counseling on an as needed basis to help maintain changes they’ve made. Counselors don’t just offer diagnoses and treatment plans, it’s a place to gather clarity, stay motivated, receive encouragement and a new perspective.

“A crisis is like a low tide at the ocean. When the ocean recedes you can walk far out of the sand and see all manner of debris littering the ocean floor; but you also spot the occasional treasure – a pristine, glimmering shell buried in the sand.” ~Lynn Grodzki

What questions do you have for me about how you can make counseling work for you?


Marci Payne, MA, LPC offers individual, marriage and family counseling in Independence MO (near Kansas City MO). Schedule a free 15 minute phone consult to determine if she is the best counselor for you and/or your family.

8 responses to “8 Ways to Make the Most of Counseling

  1. I’ve always struggled with depression, but my symptoms have been getting worse than usual. I’ve considered hiring a counselor for years, so I feel that now would be a good time to get professional help with my depression symptoms. I think you’re right about how I need to keep a counseling journal to make my sessions with a therapist more effective. It seems that writing out my progress with therapy and any questions I may have will make it more likely for me to make some breakthroughs. You made some excellent points about how doing this will make me more self aware, so I’ll definitely put this advice to practice.

    • Judy, so glad you found this article helpful as you decide whether or not to give counseling a try. Message me if you have any other questions about finding a counselor in your area.

  2. I like how you suggested to keep a counseling journal. I’ve been having some problems with anxiety and self esteem, and they’re getting worse now that I’ve moved out to college. I want to get help, so I’ve decided to try counseling, and I want to get the most out of it, so I’ll definitely look into keeping a journal.

    • Lillian, so glad you found my article and are considering working with a counselor. A journal can be useful to help with focus, clarity and awareness. Let me know if you have any general questions about counseling or finding a counselor. Best wishes! College is a big transition time.

  3. I never thought about keeping a counseling journal! That is a really great idea. I have been thinking about going to therapy for a while now. I really want to make sure that I am getting all that I can out of it so I am really glad that I came across this article. I will be sure to keep these tips in mind, thanks for sharing!

    • You’re welcome Danni. The journal really helps with observations and focus both between and in session. Best wishes as you start your journey looking for a counselor to work with.

  4. I really like the tip about getting your journal and notebook out and reflecting on you’ve been working on before the start of your session. Taking the time to see the progress you’ve made and the things you need work on can also help prepare for a counseling session. I will definitely keep these tips in mind if I ever find myself going into counseling.