Who are counsellors anyway?
A recent conversation with a client prompted me to think about the many things that counsellors know but do not tell potential clients, and not just because we have a word count to stick to when writing our profile. This is written with a view to help you if you are contemplating counselling or looking for a counsellor. The aim here is to help you understand who counsellors are and what they sign up for. Of course, I can only speak from my own perspective, but I do very much welcome other perspectives in the comments below.
A client told me that she was holding back on talking about something she had done in the past.
“I am worried that you will judge me. That you won’t like me.” She said
I asked her if she felt that way because of something I had said or done. Did she feel I had judged her at any time?
She replied “No - but why wouldn’t you? Anybody else would.”
This client feared that I would dislike her if she told me about her past. She believed it was natural to judge as I am a human, and it is what humans do, right? Whether aware of it or not, most people have a deep desire to be liked. It comes from being social animals, from wanting to be part of something, to fit in. As client and counsellor, we have built a close working relationship, so I guess it made sense that she would be reluctant to do anything which she felt may harm that relationship. I felt the same.
What is different though is how I view the relationship, and my idea of what may harm it. As a counsellor I believe that behaviour and thoughts come from feelings, so the feelings are the part I'm interested in. We think and behave the way we do for a reason, with the knowledge and feelings that we have at that time, in that moment.
When we look back on past experiences, it is important to remember that we are now wiser because of those experiences. We may not make the same choices if we were to have our time again. So, rather than focusing on behaviour, I see myself as a bit of a detective. It is my job to help find out what is behind thoughts and feelings, where they come from. From my point of view then it is being judgemental that would be most likely to harm the relationship and prevent me from being able to get to the information I need to work with.
In most counsellor profiles you will see lists of qualifications and training courses. Of course, we mention them to assure you that we are qualified to help but I realise they could also be quite intimidating. Use of the term ‘professional’ has the potential to put off anyone who has had dealings with ‘professionals’ that have made judgements which affected their happiness or freedom. In the same way as it was for my client, for many people it is inconceivable and unrealistic that a ‘professional’ will not judge them.
Anyone looking for a counsellor will likely read ‘I am a member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy’ (BACP). Apart from showing that we are qualified and licensed to be a counsellor, signing up with the BACP also means agreeing to abide by their ethical principles:
- Non-maleficence - do no harm.
- Trustworthy – being qualified and fit to practise.
- Respect - for self and others.
- Beneficence - always acting in the best interest of the client.
- Justice – fairness to all.
- Autonomy - for ourselves and our clients.
For me, these ethical principles underpin my practise as I strongly believe in them, personally as well as professionally. I also recognise that saying that could make me sound a little too perfect, and less human - almost angelic in fact.
I do wonder if the way we present ourselves as counsellors creates the impression that we are pure and perfect beings. That we can sit and listen and show empathy, but could not really know what despair, shame, grief, or guilt feels like because our own lives have been free from these.
Most counsellors present a calm and controlled exterior, a blank canvas revealing no clues about ourselves other than our professional credentials. This is on purpose as we learn in training that talking about ourselves is a risky business for many reasons, but mainly because it can divert attention away from the client and on to us, and it is always you the client who should remain at the centre of the process.
Counsellor profiles tend to show the words ‘qualified’, ‘safe’, ‘non-judgemental’, ‘confidential’. Of course I haven’t read every profile out there but in those that I have read never did it say ‘I had an awful childhood’ or ‘I have been through rehab’, or ‘I am a survivor of domestic abuse’. Having studied and taught counselling, I can confidently say that one or more of these are true for many people who train to be counsellors. In a way it is quite strange because you would think we would be shouting about our successes, what we have overcome. And yet no-one uses it in their advertising campaigns. So – why don’t we shout about this stuff? If you knew our past would you feel able to tell us all your troubles, or would you worry about adding to our burden? Would there be a seed of doubt that we were emotionally able to hear your story without being affected by it?
It may help you to know that counselling training is tough, and those who sign up for it want to help others in the same way that someone helped them. We work very hard to lay our own past to rest so that we can be strong enough to help others do the same. For me, studying and training to be a counsellor involved four years of what can only be described as turning myself inside out. Facing every part of myself and my past that I had turned away from. Leaving no stone unturned. It also helped me learn what it is to be human, how our brains and bodies work and the battle that goes on between our rational and animal self.
The qualifications I achieved then are more than just certificates. They represent the journey I have been on to achieve that calm and controlled exterior. They tell you that I get what it feels like to be in a dark or hopeless place because I have been in one. I understand how damaging it is to be judged because I have been judged. I know how lonely and isolating it is to have no-one to talk to because once I had no-one to talk to. Those qualifications tell you that I, as a fellow human, I am ready and able to listen to you with empathy and without judgement.
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