A good counsellor is skilled at helping people to help themselves. Over the two decades I’ve been working as a counsellor and therapist, I’ve increasingly come to see that what good therapy provides is really a refined and specialised form of self-help. The truth is, without a person’s genuine desire for self-help, I’m not much use to them. All my extensive training, knowledge and experience in the art of creating therapeutic relationships may deliver very little benefit for such a client. But there is something else I'm always interested in: figuring out how and why a person undermines their ability to practise effective self-help. The inventive way people sabotage themselves (I think we all do this) is always fascinating to explore and extremely useful to understand.
Most people do their best to help themselves before they seek professional help. But self-help can go wrong. Nearly all my clients have experienced prolonged periods of ‘self-unhelpfulness’ before they contact me. What they want from a counsellor or therapist varies according to their particular situation and their unique character of course, but every person I’ve ever helped has seemed to be in need of one thing most of all: to become a better self-helper.
Are ‘counselling’ and ‘therapy’ the same?
Counsellors and therapists don’t always make a clear distinction but many tend to see counselling as short-term (a few weeks) and mainly ‘problem-solving’, and many regard therapy as long-term (at least a year or two) and ‘life-changing’. But effective counselling can go on for months, and good therapy can be very brief. So in actual practice there isn’t much difference. (A cautionary note: in some contexts the words ‘therapy’ and ‘psychotherapy’ mean psychoanalysis. Seeing an analyst is not the same as seeing a counsellor.)
Two key things to expect
To counsel someone generally means ‘to give advice’, but therapeutic counselling is actually more about careful listening and reflecting. As your counsellor, my main aim is to talk with you purposefully to enable two key things to happen:
Secondly, you gain the opportunity to reflect aloud on what you’re saying and feeling, and receive unbiased feedback, all of which can extend or refresh your self-knowledge and lead to new insight. Talking openly with another person about your thoughts and feelings is usually more productive than trying to understand or analyse them in your head alone. Being well listened to in the counselling conversation can lead you to ‘hear yourself’ a little differently, and this response could bring about a helpful change in how you view the problem you’re facing. Even if you’re not looking for a new perspective, time spent in focused reflective dialogue with a counsellor very often clarifies the nature of the problem and identifies your best personal resources to deal with it.
At the initial appointment, if you decide to come for further counselling with me on a regular basis, we will discuss what you want to achieve and how many sessions might be needed. Some people start with 5 or 6 and find that is enough; others decide to make the commitment for up to 20 weeks or much longer. (If regular weekly sessions are not possible, in most cases I’m able to be flexible to suit your requirements.)
Woodcut (top of page) by Adrian Frutiger 1961