Please note that throughout most of this website I will use the words “counseling”, “therapy”, and “psychotherapy” to mean the same thing.
When people find out I am a counselor, they often ask me questions. There is one question that people rarely ask me, and I wish they would: “What is counseling all about, anyway?”
I wish people would ask me that because there are many common misunderstandings about counseling, and what people mistakenly think they know about counseling often keeps them from considering it for themselves.
One big misconception people have about counseling is that counselors have some almost telepathic powers to figure out what is “wrong” with you. The fantasy is that the counselor can do this simply by talking to you for a few minutes. Then the counselor does some tricky, manipulative stuff to mess with your head. One day, after the counselor has messed with your head enough, something happens – in the movies it usually involves remembering a traumatic incident that you had forgotten, or realizing that you misinterpreted an event from your past. Everybody cries and hugs and, boom, you are cured.
It doesn’t work like that, although many people really wish it did.
Generally what really happens in individual counseling is this: first, you (the client) tell the counselor what you want help with. This is called the “presenting problem”. If the counselor feels that this is something he can help you with, the two of you talk more about what the problem is and what you want to do about it.
Often this is the longest and most important part of the counseling, because when you are in the middle of a problem it can be difficult to see it clearly. Sometimes people already know the answer to their problem before they start counseling, but they are hoping that there is an easier or better answer. Other times people think there is no answer or only one answer, and counseling helps them to realize that there are other possibilities. Either way, completely understanding the problem and all the different possible ways to deal with it is half the battle; sometimes it is all the client really needs, and counseling ends at this point.
After the problem is clearly understood, the next phase depends a great deal on what the problem is. If the problem is “since my auto accident I have panic attacks when I get into a car”, counseling will be very different than if the problem is “I feel unhappy most of the time”. How the counseling happens from this point on depends on the client, the problem, and the counselor’s overall approach.
The counselor’s approach is influenced by his theoretical orientation, specialized training, and personal style. This is where people often start feeling overwhelmed when they consider counseling for themselves. What kind of counseling or counselor should I have? How do I know what works?
To make it easier, some important research has shown that the most important factor in successful counseling is the relationship between the client and counselor.