How does counselling help? Part One - The three pillars
“It’s just talking right?”
It surprises me how often counselling is referred to as “just talking”. I think there is still quite a veil of myth and mystery around counselling and what it actually is. While talking is indeed a large part of it, reducing it to just talking is like saying running a marathon is “just running”. There’s so much more to it than that. I want to do a series of articles digging into this a bit more, hopefully helping highlight some of the things that distinguish counselling from other forms of support and providing a bit more of a rounded answer to the question “How does counselling help?”.
Counselling (or therapy/psychotherapy), for me, consist of three important pillars: confidentiality, acceptance and understanding. It is these three pillars of practice that elevates counselling above simply talking. They speak to our core needs, so that it’s not only the act of finding the answers with someone that helps us, but the way they are in relationship with you is in itself healing. When I’m with a client the greatest tool I can bring into the room with me is not any knowledge, theory or technique, but myself. I am the biggest tool in the room. Wait…er...
Most of us are fortunate to have someone in our lives we can talk to, a friend, family member or partner. You might even be lucky enough to feel like you can tell them anything at all and know you’ll still keep that strong relationship. But not everyone has that. For some people the idea of trusting someone with a big secret is too much to think about. What if we fall out? What if they told someone? When someone knows something about us we normally keep hidden, how would we feel or behave around them?
The beauty of a therapeutic relationship (the term normally given to a client-counsellor relationship) is that what is expressed in the room, stays in the room. Confidentiality is contracted with every client I work with, and it’s the foundation of building trust. It allows the client to know that they have a space where they can express anything and that it won’t go any further or get back to anyone else. That can be quite a liberating and empowering experience. The ability to “get it off your chest” without the fear of it becoming common knowledge is very powerful.
It’s worth pointing out that there are some exceptions to confidentiality that your therapist will go through with you at contracting. For example my contract states that if I believe there is an imminent risk of serious harm to yourself or others (if you plan to carry out suicide or murder for example), if there is any evidence of current child abuse where a child is currently at risk or you have knowledge of an act of terrorism, then I will have to inform the appropriate people. Some of these are legal obligations, some are moral.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle for a lot of people to talking about their issues is the fear of being judged. The reality is that all of us make judgements, about other people, their behaviours, their emotions, it’s a part of human nature. And there are many decisions, actions or feelings we might take or have that others would look as us unfavourably for. That could be anything from having an addiction to alcohol, drugs, sex or other risk taking, to suicidal thoughts. Our choice of job to how we dress and style ourselves. We still live in a world where simply our gender, sexuality or race is sometimes enough for others to make a judgement on us. That fear of judgement can make us hide things about ourselves away from others.
Therapist's will often say they are “non-judgemental”. In fact I think it says that on my website….
(goes to check)
...yes. Yes it does. A good therapist will have had a lot of training to get to a place of being non-judgemental towards a client. For me, I have two core beliefs that help me to be non-judgemental. The first is that everything we do, every action, every choice of word we use, is deliberate. We don’t do anything by chance. So whatever decisions you make, whatever emotion you feel, whatever words you use, you are doing so for a reason. It might not make immediate sense, even to yourself, but there’s a reason behind that. It might not be that healthy, and might be something you want to change, but right now, it’s serving a purpose. Uncovering that is one of the joys of therapy. The second thing is that out of seven billion people in the world (if you want to see how many that is check out this incredible page here) there is only one person who is exactly like you. You are uniquely, extraordinarily, beautifully, you. We sometimes refer to someone or something special as being “one in a million”. Well, you’re one in seven billion, so how much more special does that make you?
When you combine your own amazing individuality with the fact that any perceived negative aspects are simply how you’ve adapted to cope with the things life has thrown at you then how can I judge you? And when we experience being in the company of someone who is totally accepting of us exactly how we are, we are compelled to extend that same acceptance to ourselves.
Therapist's, more often than not, go through a lot of training. Some of it, from personal experience, is pretty hardcore, heavy stuff. Partly because you cannot begin to understand how we function as humans and not start applying that knowledge to our own lives. We begin to understand how we process emotions, the impact of suppressed emotions, how we developed as children, how we form attachments to others, we begin to form a base of knowledge that often isn’t easy to take in (theory books aren’t always written in plain English I’ve found). That knowledge helps us to understand where you’re coming from, what you’re going through and ways in which you might be able to make changes in your life. Passing that knowledge on means you can then start to understand yourself better. The goal is always to pass that knowledge on, to empower a client and promote their autonomy.
The most important thing with this understanding, is that most therapist's that I know won’t use that as a basis for assuming they have all the answers. Let’s say a client comes to me following the death of a loved one. I know several different models of grief off the top of my head and I know the most common experiences of people going through a bereavement, but I do not know the person sat in front of me. Having an understanding does not make me the expert, my client will always be the expert in the room, because we’re dealing with them, not some theory or model, and everyone experiences things in their own unique way.
The way I look at it is I’m going on a journey with my client. They have the map, I have the knowledge to help them understand the map a bit better than they might already do. The choice of direction and destination is up to them though.
Those three pillars, confidentiality, acceptance and understanding are a core part of how I, and many other counsellors work. These are the things that make a difference to a client, but in a subtle, under the radar kind of way. For a lot of clients they won’t remember the words we used, or the activities they did, but they will remember how they were made to feel.