“So, what brings you here today?”
That’s usually the first thing I ask to open a session after going through all the (very boring) HIPAA stuff, the rights to confidentiality, and my role as a mandated reporter. It’s with that question that the session usually takes off, and most of the time, that first session really flies by.
I place a special emphasis on the answer to that question; as it is the first thing most clients say after we greet, I usually even record it verbatim.
“Well, I’ve struggled with anxiety all my life.”
“My wife and I have been having some problems for a while now…”
“There’s just so much going on in my life right now, I think I need to talk to someone…”
“I know that I’ve been depressed, but this is the first time I’m trying to get some help.”
“My mom made me come here.” (I hear that one a lot from teens.)
“We’ve been having a tough time communicating lately.” By far and away, that’s the most common one I hear from couples. “Trouble communicating,” of course, is an umbrella term for a forest of problems, so we typically have to break that down tree-by-tree. People have difficulty communicating about money, work, sex, the kids, and on and on.
No matter the reason that brings you into counseling—whatever your opening line is—you will be treated with respect and compassion. Your counselor has an ethical obligation to refer you if she can’t be helpful to you, and she has a legal obligation to never disclose what you say in your sessions.
Don’t be afraid that you might be emotional in that first session. I’d estimate that 8 out of 10 people typically cry during that initial encounter. You’re sharing something deeply personal with someone; it makes sense to think that you’re going to be emotional. Maybe it’s the first time you’ve ever described your problem out loud or even admitted it to yourself. Never fear! We don’t ever run out of tissues.
Some people are ashamed to come to counseling. On top of their presenting problem, they also feel emotional that they are sitting in a therapist’s office. They describe feeling weak or weak-minded, feeling like a failure or a loser, thinking it’s the last desperate measure to save a relationship or confront some inner demon. I promise you that your counselor doesn’t see you that way. Would you be surprised to know that most Counselor Education programs make their students go through counseling themselves before they can become counselors? Most of us have cried in our own sessions and that didn’t make us weak or shameful.
Think about what you will say when your counselor asks, “What brings you here today?” Your counselor will take it from there.