Talking to a Counsellor: Safety Rules

#1: Counsellors Are Not Gods

They are human beings, and all humans are fallible. This means you shouldn’t blindly accept everything a counsellor says as being true. Any counsellor worth their salt will encourage you to speak up when you disagree with something they say.

#2: Respect Your Instincts

Not every counsellor out there is a good match for you personally. If you start feeling uncomfortable with your counsellor for any reason, terminate the relationship. Never agree to do an exercise or assignment until you feel comfortable with it and understand the reason why it’s being recommended. Safe counsellors will be looking for signs that you are uncomfortable with their process and they will be trying to adjust to your personal sensitivities.

#3: Focus on Quality, Not Credentials

Things like degrees, diplomas, licenses, and fancy titles only indicate that your counsellor has jumped through the hoops necessary to get a particular institution or group of people to publicly approve of them. But so what? A lot of what passes for “formal education” these days is a joke. Don’t be impressed by credentials–instead, focus on the quality of what your counsellor is saying to you. Are they actually advising you or just saying “uh-huh” while you do all the talking? Are they telling you something you didn’t already know? Are they explaining things in a way that you can understand or are they talking over your head and using a bunch of unfamiliar words? Are they asking intelligent, leading questions or are they leaving the analysis up to you? Are they allowing you to interrupt and ask questions or are they droning on and on while you’re feeling like a trapped audience?

#4: No Contact & No Coercion

It is completely unprofessional and inappropriate for your counsellor to make physical contact with you or try to force you into sharing things you don’t want to share. Even a comforting pat on the shoulder or squeezing of the hand is crossing lines that should not be crossed. People are in a very vulnerable state when they are sharing their deepest wounds and insecurities. Adding physical touch to the mix only confuses clients and makes them feel less comfortable disagreeing with their counsellors. Safe counsellors will want to protect you from abuse by helping you practice good boundaries while you are working with them. They will not try to make you feel dependent on them by taking advantage of your need for affirming touch.

You should never feel like your counsellor is pressuring you to do something that makes you uncomfortable–whether it’s lying down on a couch, sitting closer to them than you want to be, or sharing information that you’re not ready to share. Remember that to be effective, counselling needs to be voluntary and you need to feel like you have some power in the relationship. Counsellors who make you feel dominated, humiliated, or forced need to be cut out of your life.

#5: Don’t Lie

Counsellors advise you based on the information you give them. They can’t read your mind. If you lie to your counsellor, they will likely misdiagnose your problem, which will result in them giving you useless advice. If you’re not ready to answer a question, simply say “I’m not ready to talk about that right now.” Safe counsellors will not pressure you to share things that you’re not ready to share.

If you’re with a counsellor that you keep wanting to lie to, it’s time to realize that you’re not comfortable with that relationship. Your counsellor is supposed to act as your advisor. If you’re hoping to relate to them in some other capacity, you must first terminate your professional relationship with them before other options can be explored.

#6: Ask About Confidentiality

Many licensed counsellors are legally bound to keep long lasting, detailed records of their sessions with you. These records are often stored in databases which many people can access (such as hospital staff and medical office personnel who are not directly involved in your care). In some cases, legal authorities might be allowed to access your psychiatric records without your permission. To obtain a license, counsellors often have to perform a certain number of hours counselling under supervision, which means they could end up regularly discussing your case in detail with their supervisors. Being officially diagnosed with certain psychological conditions can adversely affect you later on in life. It’s better to ask a few questions up front before you share information that you want to be kept confidential.

Before you start answering questions, ask your counsellor to explain when they would feel duty bound (either by law or by their own conscience) to repeat something that you told them in confidence. Counsellors should be able to give you a succinct answer to this question, such as, “If I felt someone else was being put in physical danger by you, I would feel morally obligated to warn them.” Or, “If you shared that you were intending to commit a crime, I would feel obligated to report your intentions to legal authorities.” Counsellors who seem unsure about how to answer this question are probably not good choices for sharing highly sensitive information with.

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