She looked small and anxious as she sat, no, almost perched on the edge of my sofa. “I’m not really sure I should be here. I mean, I haven’t had any big traumas, and actually my life is pretty good. What must you think of me, crying like this? How do I know if I should be in counseling anyway?”
In a nutshell, counseling is any relationship in which one person helps another person to better understand and solve some problem. That’s why it is often referred to as the helping relationship. The helper can be a professional therapist of course, as well as a friend, clergy, doctor, teacher, massage therapist or personal trainer, you get the idea. Basically anyone who is available to help can be a counselor, and the question my weepy friend was asking was did she need me, a certified professional?
Ideally, a counseling relationship, professional or otherwise, will be a catalyst for change, growth or healing. Clients will be guided in accomplishing this lofty goal in several ways;
1. Create Safety
The main thing about counseling is that you have to feel safe. I think the primary requirements of a good counselor are that they express interest in you, care about your problem, and are able to listen without passing judgment. I bet we can all remember a time when we hoped to talk to someone about a problem and they told us we were silly for having it. (Hey, it’s a problem; if it were truly silly there would be no need to talk about it!)
2. Relate Past Events
A good counselor will be able to sort through the “stories” that are being expressed and help you achieve a deepened awareness of how the current dilemma is being influenced by past events. Personally I don’t believe in dredging up painful past events just for the sake of dredging them up. If old beliefs or patterns are making current functioning difficult, then it might be helpful to examine where they originated, if not, I say leave them alone.
3. Identify Patterns
Whether a client needs to explore the past or not, a helpful counselor will be able to identify any non-productive or “crisis” patterns that are being repeated. One thing I often notice are the different ways people who feel unsafe will either fight or flee. (I bet you’ve heard those terms before.) Fighting can be done with words or fists, and it doesn’t really take an outside observer to tell you if you’re being hit. On the other hand, people who are in a flight mode often do not recognize it, and aren’t making the connections as to what is making them hide.
4. Set Goals
Now that the problem has been thoroughly explored, it is time to identify goals and learn the skills necessary to accomplish those goals. The most common things I teach in my practice are assertive skills, problem solving, and communication. Let’s say a client decides to stop fleeing (working all the time) from a verbally abusive husband. If she is going to stand her ground she better have some skills in her pocket to help her relationship get on a healthy path.
Finally, it is important to remember that a counselor will not be able to solve your problems for you. They have no magical skills or knowledge. A counselor can listen, accept, guide, direct and give “homework” but any lasting changes will ultimately be made by you.
Can the elements of counseling outlined above be achieved outside the professional counseling office? You bet! My husband Bob is my best friend; I talk to him quite a bit (along with Carole and my sister Debbie). I shudder to think of all I would have missed if I limited discussion of my troubles to a formal counseling relationship. And let me tell you, I get all of the elements listed above at one time or another from all of them, including the “homework”. So what about my weepy friend? The most common reason people seek professional psychotherapy is because the problem is either too big or too private to discuss with the usual confidants, and this was the case with her.
She believed me when I said that she was okay and her feelings were normal. She told her story, we examined the underlying patterns, and together we formulated a plan for change. She got what she wanted.
Let me leave you with a quote I found on the internet. Melodie Beattie said;
“Lessons don’t go away. They keep presenting themselves until we learn them.”