A question I am often asked by people thinking about starting counselling is ‘how many sessions will I need?’
If you are starting counselling for the first time, it is natural to be unsure how this will begin, develop, and progress, and even how it will come to an end. You may have had counselling previously through an organisation where the sessions have been a fixed number, and you have worked within these constraints.
In private practice, you can usually have as many sessions as required, as long as this continues to meet your therapeutic needs.
The value of pacing
I work with a philosophy of the importance of pacing in therapy, as in life in general. Sometimes we move at a faster pace in life, sometimes it is slower and other times we feel we need to press pause on what is moving around us.
Pacing in therapy is similar, especially when the sessions are open ended, and you may be unsure how much to bring to each session. It can also depend on what issues you wish to bring to counselling, and if you are working on past, present or future concerns or experiences; or all three.
In this instance, it can be helpful to work on a narrative or timeline. Some people find they wish to share their whole story straight away and then process different aspects in future sessions; other people start much slower and process as they go along the sessions.
Counselling can be a bit like a jigsaw
I find the analogy of a jigsaw helpful. Are you taking all the pieces and putting these together into a whole to complete the picture, or beginning with a picture and breaking these up to understand how they came together? There may be pieces missing along the way and your counsellor will help you explore this.
The number of pieces in your jigsaw and the pace in joining these together can move across the sessions – but it is always at your pace and what feels comfortable for you.
In the beginning
It can be bewildering choosing a counsellor in private practice, as unlike available sessions in organisations you have free choice to explore who you want to work with. The essence of counselling is forming a relationship with your therapist and this can also take time to develop and be tested across the sessions.
You may wish to spend the first few sessions developing this trust and getting to know if you can work together, and the pace will be cautious. Your counsellor will explain how they work and there is often some paperwork to be completed if you agree to start sessions.
There is a counselling contract which forms the written agreement of what you have agreed with your counsellor, along with GDPR consents. Negotiating this contract is the beginning of this relationship, by establishing boundaries to ensure you feel safe and hold trust with your therapist.
Build in time to review
Your counsellor will usually offer a review of how the sessions are progressing, and you may agree to this after four or six sessions, and then at these intervals. This your chance to check things are progressing at your pace and if you feel the pace is not working to have this conversation.
Pace can be adjusted during the process, and as you feel confident with your therapist you may wish to explore issues in more depth. There may be new issues which have arisen along the way, or emerging life events, and the direction of therapy changes.
Reviews can be helpful to revisit original goals (if you had any). Goals for therapy are very personal, they can be helpful but not always needed. Sometimes people enter counselling ‘to feel different or better’, which cannot be put into words or feelings at the beginning.
When does counselling end?
In open-ended practice, endings are not as prominent as in fixed session work. You are no longer working to 6 sessions or 20 sessions, which can be an external guide on pace. There is often no set conversation about how sessions will end, other than it's your choice to end sessions at any time and to work with your therapist about how to achieve an ending.
There are some questions which may be helpful to think about, such as
- How will you know when you no longer need sessions?
- Can your therapist offer a change to frequency as you approach an ending?
- What is your previous experience of relationships ending?
These are all issues in themselves to be shared in the sessions.
So, how many sessions will I need?
The simple answer to this is that it’s your choice. It can be scary starting something which you are unsure when it will end, and how you will feel along the way. The number of sessions needed for counselling is personal to you - You will work with your counsellor to begin the relationship and work through what you wish to bring to counselling, at your pace.
This may be faster or slower, and it can often be described as a rollercoaster which you may want to get off at some point.