This is a very popular question with my clients. It’s understandable, they have a problem they want solved and they are having to pay for my time.
Of course the question is very difficult to answer. Even problems at seem quite straightforward may have many hidden aspects.
I like to use the metaphor of the jigsaw, the problem as presented is the theme of the jigsaw, but at the start we may have very little idea how many pieces make up the puzzle: 5, 50 or 500. The more pieces there are to work with the longer the solution will take. This is an uncomfortable prospects for most clients, only Woody Allen can afford to spend 30 years in therapy.
From my perspective the jigsaw consists of three kinds of pieces: feelings, memories and beliefs.
- Feelings are anything that you’re aware of in your body, sensations, emotions, reactions, states and moods. They could include: anger, anxiety, tingling fingers, churnings stomach, sadness.
- Memories could include traumas and other difficult experiences.
- Beliefs are the conclusions we have come to about life and ourselves based on the experiences we’ve had.
Each of these feelings, memories and beliefs jigsaw pieces make up the problem and the route to the solution. To get a complete resolution each of these pieces will need to be addressed.
At the start nobody knows what the parts are and how long it will take to work through them. The picture is complicated still further because when the problem is solved there may be aspects of the solution that need to be resolved.
For example: if the problem is a cat allergy once the allergy has been solved then the client has no reason not to visit his cat owning in-laws who he dislikes. The allergy solution may create an in-law problem that will need to be addressed.
My approach to all this complexity is to recommend blocks of 4 sessions. At the end of the fourth session we can discuss the progress and plan how to proceed. This takes it from being an open ended commitment into an agreement with regular reviews. It doesn’t answer the how long will this take question but it breaks it down into more manageable chunks.
If we resolve the difficulty in less than four sessions the client only pays for the time they have used.