So, in the beginning of last week I shared a post [ Questions ], in which I prompted readers to ask any and all questions regarding counseling [i.e. the process, purpose, risks, rewards, etc. ].
While I may not have received many questions, the two that I got were fantastic.
Question #1: What makes counseling any different from simply talking to a good friend?
This is a great question because I believe most people who consider entering into therapy will likely ask this. Afterall, it takes time, energy, and resources to begin the process of looking for a counselor as well as attending counseling. The normal fears and feelings of nervousness, which often accompany opening yourself up to a new person and exposing your hurt, struggle, and pain, may also be present. You may ask yourself, “Wouldn’t it be simpler to just talk to my best friend?”
And to this, I would like to emphasize that counseling & the counselor-client relationship should never replace relational community in an individual’s life. Brilliant author, researcher, and LMSW, Brene Brown, explains that “We are neurobiologically wired for connection” [from her Ted Talk, The Power of Vulnerability ]. In other words, we need community. We are emotionally starved without it. Even the most introverted and content-to-being-alone persons amongst us will still experience this need to be with others and enjoy emotional intimacy. Again, counseling is not meant to a substitute for this. Instead, the therapeutic relationship is an altogether different kind of connection.
The counseling relationship is indeed a unique type of connection with another human being. I like to tell my clients that it is perhaps the one space for them to be 100% free to bring whatever emotion, thought, and experience they have to the table. In other words, nothing is off limits. If you are angry, be angry. If you are sad, hurt, bitter, or questioning-okay. You can be just that. Wherever you are at-fell free to be exactly that.
Oftentimes, this is not afforded in our outside worlds where we maintain certain roles and have specific responsibilities to fulfill. Even in our closest relationships and friendships, the freedom to be wholly you may not be afforded. Others often have expectations, after all. This is especially true when our thoughts, words, and actions can deeply affect another person. And this is not necessarily a negative thing-it is simply the reality of our lives.
The therapy relationship is purposed to be a safe & sensitive place, where an individual can bring the deepest parts of themselves – to be explored, processed, and understood. It is a space all about you. Further, a competent helping professional has not only been trained to provide this space but also has a passion for helping and keeping the focus on the client.
Question #2: How does a counselor help someone with an issue, which they personally have never experienced (i.e. abuse, trauma, addiction, loss of a loved one)?
This is another great question. Perhaps it is one you have asked before. “How can my therapist relate to what I’m going through…what I’ve been through in the past…and where I am at today.” This is a normal and justified concern. After all, when we experience pain, we want to receive understanding and support from those who truly understand and have walked in similar shoes.
Many therapists provide support and counsel for persons with specific needs. While all counselors are trained in the knowledge of symptoms, causes, and treatment/recovery process for a variety of emotional difficulties, many therapists focus on a specific clientele. Oftentimes, a counselor develops their counseling niche due to their own personal experiences, the struggle they have been through themselves, as well as the healing and recovery they have personally experienced. When searching for a professional helper, those who are competent will likely provide their specialities in their personal bio. One great website, which provides Counselor Listings for specific areas of concern is TherapyTribe.
However, knowing a counselor’s client focus does not necessarily denote his or her personal experiences. Therefore, being honest and voicing what you need and desire in a counselor is important in the therapist-search stages.
Ethically, counselors are held to a high standard when providing treatment. According to the American Counselor Association’s Ethical Guidelines, “While developing specialty areas, counselors take steps to ensure the competence of their work, and to protect others from possible harm” (ACA, C.2.b.). Futhermore, “The primary responsibility of counselors is respect the dignity and to promote the welfare of the clients” (ACA, A.1.a). In other words, counselors who are upholding professional and ethical excellence in their field are honest about their abilities and strive to provide excellent services in their specialties. The most important purpose of counseling is to benefit the client. Compassionate and successful counselors recognize and act on this truth.
Alongside finding a therapist with a specialty you desire, it is perhaps most important to seek the counsel of a professional who can provide genuine, empathetic support. Through studying aspects of successful therapy, psychologist Carl Rogers was able to identify 3 critical, core characteristics of truly helpful therapists. These include:
1. Congruence [or Genuineness]– the willingness to transparently relate to clients. [In other words, does the counselor hide behind a mystical facade, or does he or she make intentional effort to genuinely relate to you as another human being?]
2. Unconditional Positive Regard – the counselor willingly offers acceptance and positive consideration of the client. [i.e., does the counselor provide a safe, non-judgmental environment in which you can thrive or does he or she simply exercise interruption, advice-giving, and judgment from a ‘superior’ position?]
3. Empathy – the therapist communicates a desire to understand the client’s experience, feeling, and thinking. [In other words, the counselor makes significant effort to understand where you as the client are coming from and what you are feeling.]
In order for a counselor to truly help an individual with an experience (which he or she as the therapist has never endured), these three characteristics are in my frank opinion necessary. The counselor should bring to each session a foundational humility in order to connect with you and allow your voice to be heard and your pain to be understood. This is the ultimate task of every therapist, I believe: to allow the client to be seen, his or her voice to be heard, and his or her hopes to be recognized.
I enjoyed answering these questions and I deeply appreciate those who took the time to ask. Please know that if you have any questions or concern in regards to counseling or me as a counselor, I’d love to chat. You can find me here.
Learn more about Lydia Minear, MA, LAPC’s Counseling practice @ East-West Psychotherapy Associates here.