How counselling might not be what you imagine
Updated: Feb 20
Going to counselling for the first time can seem like taking a leap into the unknown. Whilst mental health and counselling is being talked about more openly than ever, there is still a lot of misinformation out there about what counselling is and how it works practically.
Most people’s understanding of what counselling is like often comes from tv, films and books. There the counsellors and therapists are often depicted behaving bizarrely, without appropriate boundaries and unethically. Whilst this is entertaining at times and might provide for a good story arc, it usually doesn't help the counselling profession or its image.
Counsellors and psychotherapists themselves frequently end up talking in “psychobabble” about their work which can make it hard to understand for those not familiar with what exactly it is that they do. I’ve certainly been guilty of this at times!
With this in mind, I thought I’d look at some of the most common myths and misconceptions around counselling that I've heard and share what the reality is.
"You have to lie down on a couch and speak whilst the counsellor makes notes behind you"
This was true once in the early days of psychoanalysis but is not how counselling is practiced now generally. Counselling sessions are held in a quiet room with the therapist and client sitting opposite each other at a comfortable distance. There will usually be some tissues and drinking water available and there might be some other chairs in the room. Some counsellors might take notes in an initial session with you, but many don't, myself included.
"Counsellors will tell you how to sort your life out"
You might come to counselling having very difficult decisions to make or feeling stuck in tricky circumstances. It's understandable that some people in these situations might seek out someone to tell them what to do but this is not the role of a counsellor. A counsellor or any type of therapist should not be telling you what decisions you should be making in your life. For a start, your counsellor does not know more about your life situation than you do, so they would not be in a better situation to make a decision than you are.
What counselling can help you with in regards to making tough decisions is give you space to explore them. In sessions you can look at your motivations, risks and benefits, how you usually make decisions, how you feel emotionally versus your more rational side and so forth. When you understand yourself more and what you need, you are generally able to make better choices for yourself.
"Your counsellor will make you talk about something you don't want to"
There is a perception that counselling is a space where your counsellor will force you to talk about all manner of uncomfortable, frightening and traumatic experiences and thoughts against your will.
This is not the case. Counselling sessions are a time for you to choose what you want to talk about and work on, not for anyone else to determine what you look at. Counselling is a work of cooperative partnership between the counsellor and client, and there should be no compulsion from the counsellor towards the client. Instead a counsellor will work to help support you work through things you want to look at and address.
At times your counsellor might challenge you about something in a session. Sometimes there are points in counselling where it can feel uncomfortable, such as working with difficult or painful emotions and memories. However, this is done in a supportive environment and your counsellor will work with you to find the right level of pace, support and challenge that works for you. Sometimes growth and making changes requires us to step out of our comfort zone.
If you ever find that you feel like you are being pushed too far in counselling sessions, speak to your counsellor about it so that they can know how you are finding things. If that doesn't help, consider working with another one that can better support you.
"Counsellors just listen"
A common misconception about counselling is that counsellors just listen and don't do anything else. As a result some people think that counselling is the same as talking to a friend about a problem. However counselling is very different to speaking with a friend and counsellors do a lot more than just listening.
In practical terms, a good counsellor as well as listening to you will at points ask you questions about what you're talking about, how it is talking about it, what you notice in yourself and much more to deepen your understanding of yourself. They might share what they notice coming up in sessions with you and offer you suggestions and ways of working with feelings, thoughts and sensations. They may even offer you feedback on how they find they relate with you. Some counsellors use creative processes in their work with clients such as drawing, writing or drama to explore things that are difficult to put into words.
There is a lot of listening involved in counselling and at times there can be periods of silence. Often this is an important part of the process, giving space to allow feelings and thoughts to emerge as often they can be passed by in everyday life.
Counselling is very different to talking to a friend. With a friend you will have a relationship with them that touches different parts of your life. They will have their own memories with you of past experiences and their own preferences and interests that affect their own and your life. Because of this, it's hard for someone you know to be completely objective when you talk to them about a problem or issue. Whilst counsellors definitely have their own values, preferences and interests, they consciously bracket them off as much as possible in sessions so that they can be present for you and your needs. When you talk with a counsellor that time is solely for you. This is not to dismiss the importance of talking to friends and family, just to note that it is different from counselling.
If you feel like you are not getting enough feedback or input from your counsellor I would encourage you to talk about this with them and to explore that in the space. It might feel awkward to do this, but sometimes real breakthroughs in counselling can come when you talk about what you need and how you are experiencing counselling with your counsellor.
"Counsellors know more about you and your life situation than you do"
Like mentioned before your counsellor does not know more about your life situation than you do, Unfortunately/fortunately training as a counsellor does not grant the counsellor telepathic powers. A counsellor will ask you questions such as “what was that like?” of “What did that mean to you?” precisely because they recognise that they don’t know what your experience of something was and how you made sense of it.
"Counsellors have figured out life"
For some people they can imagine counsellors to be authority figures on life and have secret enlightened knowledge like a guru. Yes, counselling does put the counsellor in a position of authority with the client. And yet most counsellors will work to acknowledge this and work on as even and a fair a relationship level as possible with their clients.
Counsellors are only human. We make mistakes and we do not have all the answers to all the ever expanding questions that life brings up. What constitutes a good life for someone or a right choice in a certain situation may not be at all in the case of another.
What counsellors can support you with is to help you have more compassion for yourself, understand what you value and what gives you meaning, so that you can make choices that better suit your needs and values.
"Only crazy people go to counselling"
Nothing could be further from the truth. Counselling is available for anyone in any state or time in their lives. You may have recently suffered a loss or noticed something you are feeling anxious or depressed and that it is affecting your quality of life. It helps to have a focus on what you would like to explore and work on but even if that isn't the case and you are feeling confused about exactly what is going on for you, counselling can help you explore that feeling of confusion and help you to start finding some clarity.
Having a counsellor is pretty much like having a personal fitness trainer for life. Sure, if you are unfit and want to get healthier, then having a personal trainer can really help. It doesn't mean that personal trainers only work with unfit people wanting to get in shape. Counselling can help maintain good mental health and prevent you running into serious mental health problems and bad situations. It can also help you to live a more fulfilling and meaningful life by supporting your personal growth and developing your self awareness and emotional intelligence.
If you are finding life difficult to deal with or feel like you are stuck that doesn't mean you are crazy or broken. And if you really are feeling like you're crazy or broken that's ok too. In fact one of the things counselling can help you with is to rediscover your natural ability to deal with life, which we all have within us.
If you are interested in finding out more or booking an initial counselling session email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call or text me on 07480 441993