How Counselling Can Help

19th January 2008

Martin Cox MBACP, of Achieving Balance, answers the question ‘What Exactly Is Counselling And How Can It Help?’

The most frequent feedback from clients, when I ask for their comments on counselling, is “It’s not at all how I’d imagined”. It seems that there are often common beliefs that underpin clients’ expectations. With these in mind I will attempt to set the record straight on what counselling is (and is not) and how it may be helpful…

Belief 1: The counsellor will try to give me unwanted advice.

A good counsellor will rarely give advice. Why? Let’s take a couple of examples

When you confide in a friend she may respond, “If I were you…” which is not always helpful because she isn’t you, and what works for her won’t necessarily work for you. There are plenty of daytime TV talk shows that use this ‘If I were you’ approach to helping people, and a plethora of agony aunts who are more than happy to dish out advice in newspaper columns.

Many ‘makeover’ programmes on the TV take people and tell them what to wear, how to look, how to act, what to say, how to get slim, how to discipline their children etc, etc. They mostly work to a similar format: the member of the public is doing something wrong, the “expert” tells them how to do it right, they experience some difficulty in doing it properly until the ‘expert’ puts them straight and then they live happily ever after – all in half an hour! The main problem here is that we don’t see what happens next, but it is well known that people generally find it very difficult to maintain new ways of doing things that they have been told to do. Also, these shows will have you believe that there’s a right way and a wrong way to live your life and that simply isn’t the case. Sure, there are often more useful ways to do things but these are useful to us individually and the ‘one size fits all’ approach just doesn’t work.

A counsellor will work with you to help you discover more useful ways to get on with your life: ‘useful’ being determined by you, not the counsellor.

Belief 2: I’ve heard the counsellor won’t say a word / we’ll sit there in silence

Depending on their training and the approach they use, some counsellors will expect you to do most of the talking virtually unprompted, while there are others who use a much more discursive approach in which to generate new ideas.

There is no right or wrong way, but a counsellor should be tailoring his or her interactions to suit the client. Not every approach will suit everyone and, of course, there is a limit to each counsellor’s flexibility. So, if you are not finding the counselling productive, talk this through with your counsellor and consider changing to a different counsellor if necessary.

Belief 3: seeing a counsellor is admitting I’ve failed to sort out my own problems.

A counsellor is not an expert on your life. You are – and you should certainly not feel as if you have been judged. If the counsellor is ‘expert’ in anything, it’s in having conversations with you of the type that generate new ideas and offer more choices.

One of the best things about the counselling process is that you get to talk freely to a neutral third party. The counsellor should have no personal interest in any specific outcome, only that you are more satisfied with life when you leave than when you arrive. This can be very different from some clients’ expectations… I once asked a couple about their hopes for the counselling process and the husband said, “I want you to listen to what we have to say and then tell my wife I’m right” (!).

Let’s look at another example…

You and your partner are going through a rocky patch and you confide in your best friend, who says how wonderful your partner is and how lucky you should feel. You then turn to your mother who tells you she knew your partner wasn’t right for you and she’s surprised you’ve lasted this long. Neither of these opinions is wrong; they’re just opinions. But do they help you or just confuse or upset you further? A counsellor will help you explore your thoughts and feelings about the relationship. The counsellor will help you to see the situation from different perspectives and make up your own mind.

Beief 4: I’ll have to revisit unpleasant, uncomfortable or painful memories.

Some counselling approaches will be interested in going back to find and understand the root cause of present issues, although the days of re-traumatising clients by getting them to re-live painful memories over and over are largely gone. Other approaches stay very much in the present, ignoring causes and focusing instead on finding solutions to manage, alleviate or remove the symptoms of the problem.

If you like to talk things through and make sense of how the past impacts on the present then the former approach might be for you. In today’s society many people prefer the latter – the ‘fix it’ mentality of the more contemporary approaches. You should also bear in mind that different approaches are often best suited to different problems.

Belief 5: seeing a counsellor is admitting I’ve failed to sort out my own problems.

If you’ve conceded that there is a problem, rather than ignoring it and hoping it will go away, you are well on the way to resolving it. Going to see a counsellor can then be a really positive step, because counselling can enable you to find the best route forward. As mentioned, it is not the counsellor’s job to fix the problem for you, but it is his or her job to help you to recognise and utilise more effectively the resources you already possess which will help you to resolve any issues you have. The hope is that the next time you hit a similar challenge, you will overcome it without the need to return to counselling.

Belief 6: Going to counselling is a long term undertaking

Early psychotherapists, such as Freud and Jung, certainly believed that effective therapy was often relatively long term, as do some of the counsellors that have followed in their footsteps. And there’s nothing wrong with this approach as long as it suits the client and the client’s goals. On the other hand, many counsellors work using ‘brief’ approaches, where their aim is to assist the client in bringing about the desired change in the shortest possible time.

Belief 7: Counselling is for Individuals

This can depend on the difficulties you are having. Obviously, relationship issues can be often more easily resolved where the various affected parties attend either couple counselling or family counselling together.

Traditionally, some problems, such as depression and anxiety, have been treated using individual counselling. But you could also consider group counselling, with other similarly affected individuals, or ‘family counselling’, with others that are affected by, and have an effect on, your difficulties. Both will enable you to explore a much greater range of opportunities for change, and family counselling has the added benefit of getting those closest to you to consider their own role in your difficulties.

And finally...

In this country, at the moment, anyone can call themselves a ‘counsellor’ or ‘psychotherapist’. As you are quite likely to be rather emotionally vulnerable when attending counselling, you will need to ensure that the counsellor sitting in front of you is suitably trained and working with your best interests at heart. Your GP may be able to refer you or recommend a counsellor to you. Alternatively, organisations such as the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (www.bacp.co.uk) and the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy (www.psychotherapy.org.uk) each hold lists of qualified members.

Above all else, I would suggest that you find a counsellor with whom you feel comfortable; someone you can trust; someone who will take the time and trouble to understand you and the difficulties you face and who treats you with the respect you deserve. This is because the key to success will be the partnership that develops between you and your counsellor.

Find Your Local