What is counselling? What goes on in a counselling session?
It is just for those with real messed up lives, right? No, not true.
It is just for those with “mental health” problems, right? No, not true.
It is only for relationships that are close to failing, right? No, not true.
You go to a counselor and they tell you what to do to get better, right. Not really.
If I tell a counselor enough information he or she will be able to tell me what is wrong with me, right? Not necessarily.
Well then, what’s the point of seeing a counselor if they can’t tell me what’s wrong with me or tell me what to do?
Let me explain a humanistic understanding of the counselling process.
Counselling can be a very important process of self-exploration because the therapist does not pollute the exploration with her or his own life. Skilled therapists know when to share themselves and when to keep things focused on their clients. You know when you are telling a friend some intimate detail of your life, looking for support and understanding and all you get is how they dealt with that or how their Uncle dealt with it? That doesn’t feel very good does it? In general relationships, we are not very good at listening, but more importantly, empathic understanding. Empathic understanding is when someone can communicate back to you what you have thought, felt, and described, showing you that they really listened (Carl Rogers, 1980). This feels good because we all want to be heard, understood, and validated for having the experiences that we have. If we couldn’t share this with others it would be a pretty meaningless experience.
So is counseling just sitting with a really good listener? Sometimes, yes.
But most of the time it is more than that. The trait of “good listener” is important, and if you don’t feel that your counselor is listening and really hearing what you are saying, then get a new one. Sometimes the fit is not right. I am sure I do not always communicate very well to people that I am really hearing them. I often try to check in with clients to make sure that I am hearing them right. This is the basic difference between a therapeutic relationship and a friendship. In therapy, it is a little bit more one-way, which helps to stay focused on one person and their struggle. This process of empathic listening is not as easy as it sounds and is something that many counselors practice in graduate school for many hours. Capturing what someone is saying often times means listening for what is implied in their words, body language, and tone of voice. It is not always just in words.
Once we have this base in place, we can move forward with exploration. Counselling and psychotherapy are processes of exploration – at least that is how I approach them. This can be a very beneficial way to work through decision-making, fears, passions, anxieties, and negative self-perception. Therapy is usually a process of going deeper into all that you carry with you in terms of your struggle. We carry with us a complexity of internal experiences, such as thoughts, feelings, emotions, bodily sensations, and perceptions. We also move about within many different contexts, such as work, school, family, church, community, and the world. Therapy is a focused process to help people get a better sense of their own relationship to self. It can be very difficult to try and navigate all of that by yourself or with just friends/family. Sometimes you do navigate it with your self and with friends, and other times you get stuck.
Counselling is about removing the obstacles that keep you stuck. It is not about a therapist answering your problems or giving you a neat little label – it is about helping you to access the resources you already have. We are all organisms that eventually look to grow toward sources of healing and health. Some people need more assistance than others before it is safe enough to grow. Also, do we have capacities for hurting others and staying stuck there? Yes, we do. Many people get stuck and stay stuck for reasons of fear, habit, and greed. So it is very much a choice to make a conscious effort to be the true and healthy person you want to be. Finding the right therapist for you can help you begin the exploration process into what holds you back, what contributes to feelings of depression, anxiety, or stress, and what might allow you to break free.
Entering into a safe relationship with someone who cares to help you find your way can be one of the best decisions a person ever makes. It is for anyone when they feel stuck. It does not matter the issue, small or large. Several sessions might help you on your way, or it might take several years to fully heal old wounds and regain your sense of self. As a therapist, I care most deeply about helping people become free. Free to be who they are. Free to like who they are. Free to go after what they want in life. Free to create. Free to choose healthy relationships. Free to choose sobriety. Free to love. Free to flourish at work. It is not my job to fix my clients – although I’m sure I try sometimes – but to help them learn how to explore their inner worlds, which will naturally guide them when they listen.