What is counselling and how can it help?
We each experience those bumps in the road of life at one time or another, whether it's rocky relationships, job stress, grief, life changes. They can cause depression, anxiety, or lack of confidence, and we can struggle to deal with them on our own.
You may have been advised to seek help from a counsellor, but you don't know where to start and what to expect. Making contact with a therapist can feel really scary and so, for many, they try to find reasons not to.
You might think:
- I’m fine, I can manage this myself.
- I don’t want a stranger knowing all my business.
- I don’t want someone telling me what to do.
- There are people in the world a lot worse off than me.
- My problem is so small, it’s not worth doing it. I’ll only be dismissed.
- My life is so complicated, I’m very complex and therapy can’t help.
- What can they do that I can’t.
- A friend had it once and told me it didn’t work for her.
- I don’t want to air my dirty laundry in public.
Or, you might use ways to distract yourself:
- I really need a holiday/new car/a night out with my friends/another glass (or bottle) of wine.
- I just need some retail therapy to make me feel better.
For a while, those distractions work, and things may settle down. But, the thing is that those distractions just paper over the cracks - masking the problems - which can return when you least expect them.
Prescribed medication can really help dull the emotional pain, lift your mood, or help you sleep better. But, many people want to be able to live their lives without them.
So, this article is to break some of the myths around therapy and explain a bit about it.
What therapy is not
So many people don’t understand what therapy is, and they make some assumptions, many of which are incorrect. A counsellor can’t solve your problems, and as I often tell clients - ‘The fairy fell off the Christmas tree last year and broke all the magic wands’. Neither is it mind reading or mind control.
A therapist is not going to try and solve your problem for you, give you advice or tell you what to do. Those caring friends and family tend to do that, but their advice may be conflicting and based on what they think is best for you, and from their point of view, which often means what they would do in your shoes, and that might not be the right thing for you.
A counsellor is not a friend. They are a professional who has trained for several years to gain their qualifications and continues to update their skills and knowledge on a regular basis. It’s the kind of relationship you would have with your doctor or dentist. Both are there to support and help you, so you are unlikely to know anything about their personal life.
Your therapist is not going to tell you to pull yourself together or put on your big girl’s pants. Neither will they dismiss your problem or tell you that you are making too much of a fuss - comments you may have received from others in your life many times, who really don't understand, and let's face it if you could - you would!
What you can expect from a therapist
One size doesn’t fit all. Just as any other professional - doctor, solicitor, chiropractor - each therapist works differently, and many specialise in certain areas. For example, addictions, grief, relationships, sexual issues. They are likely to have different approaches too, as well as working in different settings - clinic, their home, or a counselling room.
So, it’s important you find someone with whom you feel comfortable. Most counsellors will offer a free consultation, during which you can find out more about them and how they work, as well as whether it's something they can help you with. However, this isn’t a counselling session.
A therapist should always explain their qualifications and experience, and provide a contract so you understand their terms at the start of working together.
You should feel comfortable enough with your counsellor to be able to share your problems, without feeling judged. However, your counsellor is going to ask uncomfortable questions, firstly to understand your problem better and what you want to achieve, as well as to help you make the positive changes you are looking for.
It’s important to remember you are paying for their expertise, experience, attentiveness, and objectivity - which your friends and family don’t have.
Therapy is about self-improvement, and wanting to make positive changes in your life. To achieve that takes time and investment in the process. Understanding the patterns you have followed in your life so far that have continued to have a negative impact. So, it’s about bringing those behaviours into your awareness, and then being open to learning new positive approaches, and ways to be more effective and skilful in your approach to life’s struggles.
Just like going to the gym to improve your fitness, the fitness instructor will help and support you to get there. But you won’t reach your goals if you don’t invest your time and effort to make those changes. Just as you need to commit to regular exercise to achieve those results, so you need to be committed to the process. Signing up for gym membership alone won’t achieve results, so it is the same with therapy.
A therapist is there to listen - without judgment, without blame, shame, or belittling of your experience and struggles. It’s easier to talk to a stranger, than someone close to you, especially when you know that what you share with your therapist remains confidential. What is shared stays between the two of you, apart from exceptional circumstances. For example, if you are in danger of harming yourself or others. But that will be explained to you at the start of therapy.
Therapy is a process that takes time and commitment, but you should be able to notice a difference in just a few sessions, as long as you have put in the work. It’s useful to have a regular review to ensure that things are going in the direction you want. If they aren’t, then it’s important that you talk to your counsellor about that. A frank and honest discussion is important, so the therapist can really help you.
I always tell clients that we are working together and that they need to feel able to say if there are things they don't understand, or if something isn't working for them.
It may be that the therapist isn’t the right one for you. You can always shop around, and most counsellors will offer a free session or a phone call, so that you can ask questions, and get a sense if they seem like the right person to work with.
I will leave you with a final comment that so many clients say to me - "I wish I’d come to you for help sooner."