People start counselling for many reasons: they may feel stuck, they or others may be having problems that are very difficult to solve, they may have been asked or advised to see a counsellor by someone they trust or they may need to know that someone is truly listening to them and wants to help them change.
The reasons are as varied as the people themselves. But regardless of what brings you to counselling, one of the first things the counsellor will help you with is self-awareness, because you have to know what you are doing, or thinking, or feeling, before you know how you might change it.
Most of us feel that we know ourselves reasonably well – and we do. However, your counsellor will want you to pay attention to yourself in new ways.
If she is a behavioural psychotherapist she will ask you to pay attention to observable behaviour, sometimes even counting how often something is done in order to establish a baseline from which to measure changes in the behaviour.
A cognitive behavioural therapist will help you to focus upon your thoughts and how they affect your behaviour. You learn to note which of your thoughts are helpful and which are not, challenging and changing those that are shaping behaviour in ways that don’t work for you.
An emotion focused psychotherapist will ask you to pay attention to your feelings, how they are held in your body (often as tension) and how you behave when you are reacting to a specific feeling.
A rational emotive therapist will have you pay attention to behaviour, feelings and thinking and noticing how they are interconnected.
Other types of therapy ask you to pay attention to your birth order, to unconscious symbolism, to your beliefs, or to how your past experience is shaping your current reactions. There are almost as many ways to pay attention as there are psychologists to focus on them.
Many therapists don’t adhere to only one theory for understanding people’s experience and helping them increase their self awareness, but will weave different ideas together to find something that will work for that individual.
Mindfulness practise is one of the ways to do that. With mindfulness you shift your attention to encompass all of your experience, often starting with your external senses of sight, sound, taste, touch and smell, and then sweeping through your internal experience of thought, feelings, beliefs, and memories.
You also learn to notice when you are judging your experience and are criticising your thoughts or feelings, and how that too shapes your experience and your behaviour. Along with self-awareness you learn to accept who you are.
Telling the counsellor your story and then learning new ways to think about it and of being self-aware are the initial stages of counselling. From there you are able to build change and become the person you always wanted to be.