Blog FAQ

How Long does Counselling Last?

Before beginning counselling, some people want to know: how long will it take? Wondering about much time might you stay in counselling is a sensible concern and all good counsellors will be happy to assist you with that question. This FAQ article discusses time in therapy.

A question that a number of people want answering before they commit to counselling is: “how long will counselling take?”

As a counsellor who practices with psychodynamic, cognitive-behavioural and a systemic approaches, I would suggest that there may be at least two things motivating this question:-

  1. You’re asking for the amount of time until what you’ve brought to counselling feels better.
  2. You’ve have underling concerns that this question might be trying to cover.

What does the Question Mean?

How long Counselling Takes to complete.

To be fair, with this question, I don’t know how long our counselling work is going to take.  The reasons is: I’ve never worked with you on this subject before, and as counselling is not simply a factor of what the counsellor does to the client, then you will be an important a factor in the equation.

Counselling is a collaboration – a joint effort worked at both by counsellor and client together. As a client, if you’re expecting a kind of GP Appointment experience where you describe your problems and the counsellor prescribes a course of treatment, then you’re in for a pleasant surprise when you discover that you can become an equal participant in your recovery.

However, if the amount of time (and money) you might spend meeting with a counsellor is, literally, a concern for you, then you and I can discuss what we think we can (and cannot) achieve in a set number of sessions.  

It’s worth having this conversation because this has to be a mutually agreeable arrangement.

If I am unsure about entering into a time-limited counselling contract with you (perhaps what you want to achieve is vast and you only want to spend a couple of sessions on the matter) then can will discuss my reservations and what might be an acceptable compromise.

Meanings Behind the Question.

Often, it can be useful to look into meanings behind questions.  We do this so that we can understand more about what potential anxiety is being expressed.

So, when you ask: “how long will counselling take”, we might wonder about what could be behind / fueling your question. For example:-

  • “How much money am I going to have to spend?”
  • “Is there something seriously wrong with me?”
  • “Do  you think you solve my problems?”
  • “Have you worked with this problem before?”
  • “Can you cure me?”
  • “I wasn’t happy with my previous counsellor, but I don’t know exactly how to ask you how you will be any better.”
  • “Can you work with me – and for how long do I have to wait until we can begin?”

In my private counselling work, my approach is to discuss and agree with you what will be the focus of our counselling work. 

Once we have understood the focus, counselling can be effectively employed.

A focus can change during counselling work.  It doesn’t have to, but if there appears an opportunity to talk about how our original focus appears to be changing, this might be helpful.

We can begin to end our counselling arrangements when the focus has been address sufficiently for either you to no longer need to meet with a counsellor, or when I (as the counsellor) begin discussing with you about how the focus appears to me to have been addressed, but perhaps not to you.

Group Counselling and Time.

The type of group you join may influence how long you stay a member of the group.

For example, a fixed-term group may state the number of sessions that the group will exist for.

An open ended group might already be meeting when you join as a new member, and may continue to meet when you have left.

The Ethics of Time Spent in Counselling.

As a member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, I work with and uphold their (and my) Ethical Framework.

Sometimes, new clients are worried that I will keep them in counselling for a long time. The reality (and I have this written down for you) is that you can leave counselling at any time you wish.  I cannot (and will not) force you to stay in counselling.

Sometimes, clients hold the idea that I will tell them when they are ‘cured’ and only then may they leave counselling. 

These are natural worries and can be talked about when we begin meeting.

  • I do not – in fact cannot –  force people to stay in counselling beyond the point where a person wishes to leave.
  • When a person wishes to leave counselling, it is helpful to spend some sessions bringing the counselling to a close (eg talking about the start of counselling, what we worked through, what things have changed and what unfinished business there is).
  • If a person does not like counselling (or me, as the counsellor) and wishes to leave, we can talk about the dislikes… because sometimes the counselling relationship brings things out in a very real way (sometimes re-enacting difficulties from the past).  If talking these matters through do not help, I will not stop a person from leaving counselling.
  • If a person wishes to leave counselling – and I disagree with the decision – it would be authentic for me to share my thoughts, and my reasons for doing so, but this will not stop the person from leaving counselling. It can add an extra dimension by discussing why s/he and I disagree about ending our counselling work.
  • If a person continues attending counselling past the point where I believe there may be no further therapeutic gains (a thought I will have first discussed within my clinical supervision), I will bring this up in conversation with the client for discussion.  Sometimes ending counselling might be difficult for the client, and avoiding the ending might be a real difficulty for them.  It would be my ethical position to helpfully notice this and bring it up to talk about with the client.

So, ending counselling can sometimes be a little bit complicated – but this is perfectly OK and healthy to be aware of this. 

Types of Counselling.

Brief/Focal Counselling.

In brief counselling, the client and I agree a set number of sessions (sometimes anything between, say. four and twelve) and we agree a specific focus for the work (i.e. one specific element in the client’s life). The focus must be reasonable to work with within the time constraints.  We then meet weekly focussing in on the agreed topic until the number of sessions is complete.

It is not usual for the number of sessions to be changed once we have begun counselling. Sometimes the pressure of knowing the date of the ending can help with the focus of counselling.  There are always exceptions to changing the time limit, which we can talk about during the counselling.

One benefit of short-term counselling is that the number of sessions and the focus is agreed upon at the very beginning.  Even though it can be tough work focussing upon a problem and even six sessions can fly by very quickly.

One disadvantage of short-term counselling is that it doesn’t afford any time to work upon matters that are related (or very close to) the focus in any depth.

Short-term counselling is not suitable for every situation and, ethically, if I think that such work is not suitable for a client I will discuss it with the client before offering such a counselling contract.

Open Ended Counselling.

In open ended counselling, the client and I meet weekly for enough sessions to address the focus sufficiently –  allowing the therapy to develop in its own time.  Both client and I keep an eye on what we discussed in the first session (the assessment) as this will be the main focus of the beginning portions of the therapy… although longer-term therapy allows other matters and other matters of focus to find a voice.  At some point (sometimes several points) during the therapy either the client, or I, or both of us will begin to talk about if our counselling work has been completed sufficiently to warrant discussing and/or setting an end date (or a set number of sessions in which to complete and say goodbye).

As an ethical therapist, I would not let open ended counselling continue in an unlimited, forever, manner.  And having an unspecified number of sessions can be a valuable container for the client as he/she addresses his/her concerns and makes changes to his/her life before we both agree that the focus of the counselling work has been addressed and worked through – and now the work should come to an end.

Taking this approach allows a person to work through matters in their own time, in the safe container of the weekly counselling session.

Combined Brief/Focal/Open ended Counselling.

In reality, open ended counselling (at the beginning of counselling) has been the preferred choice for most of my private counselling clients.

It has allowed them the time and space to work through some important matters.

And as those matters become diminished in the person’s life, deciding on when to end counselling can invite a brief/focal experience.

Instead of, say, a client coming into a session saying “I’ve had enough now, bye bye!”, we discuss the ending of counselling.  This can include setting an ending date, or setting a number of sessions to continue, after which we will finish.

This last part – becoming a form of ‘brief’ counselling – can bring up many important aspects to the surface (as time is now running out!) and provided that the relationship between counsellor and client is a well-formed alliance by now, those matters can be looked at swiftly and with focus. 


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