There can be a lot of generalizations and stereotypes when it comes to certain professions, and counselling is definitely one of them! As much as the conversation around mental wellness has increased in our society, there is still a lot of stigma around seeing a therapist.
Why would someone choose to see a counsellor?
This is a question I hear a lot and often find myself explaining quite a bit. So I thought, maybe I should write about it..
Many people think you have to be in crisis, desperate, or "crazy", in order to see a mental health professional. Others may think that counselling consists of the client telling the therapist their deepest darkest secrets, and then having the therapist dish out advice, or “do” certain techniques on them. If you find that as you read this, this is similar to what your view of what counselling is like, then I have disappointing news for you… counselling is not always this dramatic.
Sure, I often see clients who are in a crisis, feel desperate, feel like they’re going “crazy”, and who do tell me very personal secrets that they haven’t shared with anyone else. However, this is not representative of everyone I see in my private practice. The majority of people I see are experiencing very common life challenges and simply searching for another type of support, one they don’t get in their everyday life.
These life challenges may be loss, anxiety, depression, self-esteem issues, life transitions, relationship concerns, and the list goes on... And, who doesn’t experience one or all of these? They are a part of life.
The term counselling is actually a bit misleading. By definition, to counsel means to give advice. Many of those in the field actually try to avoid giving advice. There may be counsellors who do dish out advice on a regular basis, however, that is not my practice and as far as I know, not the practice of my fellow colleagues. In its simplest form, counselling is a special kind of relationship. I often hear clients saying “I can’t talk about this stuff with anyone else”, “my partner doesn’t understand”, “I’m scared to tell my family, I feel like they’ll judge me”. In comes the counsellor, who if they’re doing a good job and adhering to the ethics of the profession, will provide a safer space, free of judgement and advice-giving, and provide unconditional support. If your counsellor knows of a professional who has better expertise in whatever you’re dealing with, they can always refer you.
So I am just paying to have a friend?
Another great question! No - you’re not just paying to have a friend. A registered counsellor will have gone through immense amounts of training that qualifies them above and beyond a "friend-type" relationship. The term counsellor is not protected in BC, however there are registration bodies that counsellors can become members of, which protects you as a client to ensure they have particular qualifications and abide by a particular ethical code of practice. Counsellors provide a type of support that is different from friends and family.
Often our friends and family do their best to support us, however I still hear from clients, no matter how large their support network is, that they feel lonely in whatever they’re going through. This sense of loneliness comes up so often. This doesn’t mean their friends and family aren’t being supportive, it may mean that their love for and relationship with this person gets in the way of them being able to fully support them in the way it’s most needed. Other people may not even feel comfortable confiding in their loved ones.
On top of providing support, a counsellor will use their expertise to provide guidance and direction in certain areas of concern. So depending on what area of concern you’re dealing with, you can search for a counsellor who will have experience in that area and provide therapy using empirically-supported methods - meaning research has found the counselling approach to be effective.
You (the client) are in charge!
Yes that’s right, you are in charge of the counselling relationship. Too often people will try out counselling once, realize that they didn’t “gel” with the counsellor, or their personalities clashed, or that it just didn’t feel right, and they’ll never go back to counselling again.
It’s important to understand that counsellors are incredibly diverse in their approach, style, and personalities. We ARE our work; all of these factors define what a session will look like. Shop around for a counsellor - you wouldn’t go to a store and pay for an expensive pair of shoes just because they’re the most convenient. You would go to a few stores and try to find a pair that fit just right, that will last a long time, and that’ll give you your money’s worth. (Unless you’re an impulse shopper, which I can sometimes be, and then you go for convenience). Being an informed consumer means you have the right to find the best fit no matter what service you’re seeking. This applies to counselling as well.
And because you’re in charge, if there’s something in your counselling session that isn’t working, feels awkward or uncomfortable, tell your counsellor! How often have you found yourself sitting in an appointment, squirming in silence even though you want to bring something up, and already planning to never go back again? The concept of speaking up for yourself goes against the social norm of being polite or the idea of the professional as the expert. It’s important to remind yourself that the counselling session is for you. You are the expert in your life, more so than any trained professional. The more active of a participant you are, the more you’ll get out of your session. And know that we are trained to receive feedback and our job is to adapt as needed.
I hate to burst your bubble, but counsellors can’t actually read minds, so take a risk, speak up, and take your mental wellness into your own hands.
If you’re thinking about seeing a counsellor but are still hesitant, most counsellors offer a free 15-30 minute chat on the phone to see if they’ll be a good fit for you. You can find listings for Registered Clinical Counsellors in BC at The BC Association of Clinical Counsellors or Counsellingbc.com.
We all have the ability to heal and grow. Sometimes we just need a little guidance and support…