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 therapeutic counselling provides is really a specialised form of self-help. The truth is, without a person’s genuine desire to help themself, 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 and self-encouragement. The inventive way people sabotage themselves (I think we all do this) is always fascinating to explore and extremely useful to understand.
Most people I've counselled obviously did their best to help themselves before they sought 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 definitely 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:
First of all, you gain the positive experience of high quality attention: being heard and understood by a fully interested yet impartial listener. As this skilled, deep listening is also respectful, non-judgemental and confidential it creates the right conditions for free and honest expression of whatever is troubling you. You can take the freedom in counselling not only to talk freely about yourself but also about anyone and anything at all. You're completely at liberty not to self-censor — and not be judged or criticised for what you say.
Secondly, you get the opportunity to reflect aloud dialogically on what you're saying and feeling. You can open up a conversation with yourself, using the counsellor as a witness and guide as necessary. This form of prompted therapeutic dialogue is a way to practise your ability to listen to the parts of you that are mostly unheard or silenced. Giving a voice to these parts and responding to them very often leads to the emergence of new insights and a different — perhaps more compassionate — understanding of how you are the way you are. What happens next in therapy is even more interesting than the problem you started with!
Making a commitment to your counselling
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