Counselling: why talking helps
If you have been considering counselling for some time but are unsure why or how it might help you, this article is for you. You might also just want to understand what counselling is about in case you want it in the future. Here I talk in detail about five main principles of counselling and why it can be helpful.
1. It is confidential
Talking therapists, aka counsellors, psychotherapists, counselling psychologists etc. are all bound by a code of ethics to ensure they adhere to confidentiality. This means that they will not talk about whatever it is you tell them with anybody. They also have to keep any notes or information about you safe. As well as being a moral duty, this aspect is in line with certain laws such as the Data Protection Act (2018). This means that if therapists do not adhere to this, they could be prosecuted.
An exception to this is if your therapist believes you are an immediate danger to yourself or others, in which case your physical safety is put first. In addition, therapists are obliged to appoint and sometimes meet with a ‘supervisor’. This is to discuss and seek support for elements of their work. In these meetings, personal information about clients is withheld.
Why this helps:
Knowing that what you say is kept within the counselling room enables you to feel safe to talk freely about your problems. Many people can often feel that when they tell one person something, they aren’t really just telling the person in front of them – and sometimes they are right!
This might be in the form of gossip passed around social circles. It could also be about being in a close-knit family, where it is assumed that problems are openly discussed with family members. This can give us a sense of unease and feeling out of control, because what we share becomes the property of others to do what they want with. It might stop us from sharing anything at all.
Knowing what you say is held safely can be incredibly valuable, as it gives you an opportunity to say things you might have thought could never be said to another person.
The cornerstone of any talking therapy is that someone is there to listen. Therapists are trained to do this, so that your sessions are all about you. In addition, they adopt an empathic stance when they listen, so that they do not bring in their own biases or judge what you say.
Why this helps:
The benefits of having someone listening might seem obvious. We live in a society of people who have a lot to say, because they have so much to contend with in their own lives. This can mean that in our daily lives no one is really listening to each other.
Having a special set time and space given to us is rare in this modern world. Being able to talk and simply know you are being heard, respected and accepted by another person can be a real gift.
3. Processing thoughts and feelings
You may have heard the expression ‘processing’ and might be wondering what that actually means. Processing simply refers to the act of acknowledging, organising and expressing your bottled-up thoughts and feelings.
In life people often try to ignore and suppress thoughts and feelings as a way to cope with difficult events or experiences. In the short term, this might be helpful, as it enables us to keep moving and ‘get on’ with life.
However, if this has become your default in life, or is the way you deal with a specific problem you are struggling to face, it can have undesirable effects on your mental and physical health. For example, it can take its toll on your self-esteem, or lead to depression or anxiety. When our bodies are under too much stress, over time it can have detrimental effects on the nervous system that can lead to other health problems.
Why this helps:
Holding in all of those negative thoughts and feelings takes up enormous energy, and as I’ve already mentioned has a negative impact on your mental and physical wellbeing. Being able to open up in a safe, confidential environment where you are not being judged, can help lighten the burden and release tension.
4. It is not advice – and this is good!
When you are feeling stuck or confused, your first instinct might be to seek advice from others to ‘fix’ your problem. However, you might have heard therapists do not give advice which might go against your expectations of seeking professional help.
The reason for this comes back to a therapist's training and code of ethics. Advice giving almost always involves a judgement call, and as therapists are not there to judge, this goes against the very core of their work. Furthermore, they are not there to influence you, as this takes power away from you, which is deeply unethical.
Why this helps:
Advice is most helpful when it is about a practical problem, and we are seeking information and knowledge. For example, we might need information about financial matters, in which case we would seek the advice of an expert such as a financial advisor, as they are assumed to have more knowledge on the topic than we do.
However, when it comes to matters of the heart, only you are the real expert. Advice giving in this department is rarely helpful, because no one can know you as well as you know yourself. Well meaning people might offer you advice, but this will likely be coloured by their own perspective of your situation, and therefore might not truly reflect your unique experience.
It might also be worth reflecting on times someone has given you advice and how you received this. Often the advice we accept is a course of action we were probably already leaning towards anyway, so advice is simply reinforcing what we already thought. Other times, advice can feel more like judgement, and can create tension in our relationships.
Talking about your problem with a therapist in an honest and open way can help you to gain more clarity which will help you to safely come to a decision in your own way and in your own time.
5. Talking to a ‘stranger’
While any kind of talking can be helpful, such as talking to a trusted friend, colleague or family member, therapy is unique as there should be no prior or existing connection between you and your therapist.
This is important, because without realising it, talking to someone we know can inhibit us in many ways. For example, it could be about the issue of confidentiality I talked about above or it could be that we are worried about burdening the people we care about.
Another problem could be that some people are so close that they have a personal or emotional investment in your life, which means they approach your problem with their own agenda. Equally, there may be an element of fear, embarrassment or shame about admitting your deepest thoughts and feelings to a loved one, as you care so much about their opinion of you.
Why this helps:
Opening up to a stranger might feel like an odd thing to do, after all “don’t talk to strangers” is one of the things we are told many times as children. Taking the decision to talk to someone you don’t know can take enormous courage.
However, it can also give you the freedom to talk about anything you wish, knowing that your therapist is trained to hold whatever it is you bring. This might just be the best decision you make for your mental health, wellbeing and quality of life.