There is a lot of talk about counseling nowadays. Some of you may know what counseling is and may have taken some counseling sessions from a counseling psychologist. If you do not know what counseling is or have not had counselling before you would have a number of questions about what it involves and whether it would help. If you are considering attending a counseling session you may feel uncertain about committing your time and money to see a counsellor. Hopefully this article can begin to answer some of your questions.
Counseling is a wonderful twentieth-century invention. We live in a complex, busy and ever changing world. In this world, there are many different types of experiences that are difficult for people to cope with. Most of the time, we get on with life, but sometimes we are stopped in our tracks by an event or situation that we do not, at that moment, have the resources to sort out. Usually, we find ways of dealing with such problems by talking to family members, friends, neighbors, or our family doctor. But occasionally their advice is not sufficient, or we are too embarrassed or ashamed to tell them what is bothering us, or we just don’t have an appropriate person to turn to. Counseling is a really useful option at these moments and at this hour.
What is counseling?
The client seeks such a relationship when they encounter a ‘problem in living’ that they have not been able to resolve through their everyday resources. This has resulted in their exclusion from some aspect of full participation in social life. Such persons would benefit from counseling as it helps them become active in social life and become fully functional. The basic foundation for counseling to become effective is that it can happen only if the client wants it to happen.
How does counseling work?
Counseling is characterized by the presence of a number of features that are not readily available to people in everyday life:
- Permission to speak. This is a place where the person can tell their story, where they are given every encouragement to give voice to aspects of their experience that have previously been silenced, in their own time and their own way, including the expression of feeling and emotion.
- Respect for difference. The counselor sets aside, as far as they are able, their own position on the issues brought up by the client, and his or her needs in the moment, in order to focus as completely as possible on helping the client to articulate and act on his or her personal values and desires.
- Confidentiality. Whatever is discussed is confidential: the counselor undertakes to refrain from passing on what they have learned from the person to any others in the person’s life world.
- Affirmation. The counsellor enacts a relationship that is an expression of a set of core values: honesty, integrity, care, belief in the worth and value of individual persons, commitment to dialogue and collaboration, reflexivity, the interdependence of persons, and a sense of the common good.
These are simple principles, but taken together represent an arena for support, reflection and renewal that is distinctive within modern societies. Within this arena, the client and counselor make use of whatever cultural resources come to hand (conversation, ideas, theories, rituals, problem-solving algorithms and discourses) to achieve a satisfactory resolution of the initial problem in living that initiated the decision to engage in counselling.
What does the counselor do?
The counsellor does not diagnose or label the client, but does his or her best to listen to the client and work with the client to find the best ways to understand and resolve the client’s problem. The counsellor adopts one of the three “core” approaches to counselling, namely the psychodynamic, cognitive-behavioral and the humanistic. The psychodynamic approach to counseling is focused on the belief that unaccepted thoughts, emotions and behavior of our childhood manifest as depression, fears and conflicts. Conscious discussion of the helps resolve them. Cognitive behavioral approach is based on the idea that how we think, how we feel and how we act interact together. Working on the negative thoughts, feelings and behavior can help alternative ways of thinking and behaving and would reduce the psychological distress. Humanistic approach to counseling assumes that everyone has an innate capacity to grow emotionally and psychologically towards the goals of self-actualization and personal fulfillment. Concentrating on the feelings at the present moment and accepting the negative and positive aspects of oneself reduces the discomfort. Apart from interviewing the client and dispassionately discussing the problem, the counselor is thoroughly trained in administering standardized psychological tests and questionnaires to assess the client’s thoughts, feelings and behavior. Interpretations of the test scores help the counselor design and implement an intervention strategy. Hours of supervised training is imparted to the counselor to strengthen his or her counseling skills and practice.
How long does counseling last?
For the majority of clients, one to six sessions with a counselor are sufficient to make a real difference in identifying and resolving the problem that was bothering them. The sessions usually last for 45 minutes to 1 hour. These sessions can be precious, since the counselor is trained to listen, take the client seriously and focus on caring and helping, a facility that is difficult to obtain in any society.
Where is counselling practiced?
There exists a wide diversity in counseling practice. Counseling can be practiced in mental hospitals, general hospitals, universities, colleges, schools, industries and organizations. Counseling is used to resolve problems related to anxiety, depression, conflicts, suicidal ideation, academic problems, adjustment, interpersonal relationships, transitions, stress, trauma, grief, marital breakdown, substance abuse and a whole lot of problems experienced by human beings. Counseling can be delivered through one-to-one contact, in groups, with couples and families, over the telephone and even through written materials such as books and self-help manuals.
What changes can be expected from counselling?
Some of the different changes that are expected either explicitly or implicitly by counsellors are the following:
- Insight. The acquisition of an understanding of the origins and development of emotional difficulties, leading to an increased capacity to take rational control over feelings and actions.
- Relating with others. Becoming better able to form and maintain meaningful and satisfying relationships with other people: for example, within the family or workplace.
- Self-awareness. Becoming more aware of thoughts and feelings that had been blocked off or denied, or developing a more accurate sense of how self is perceived by others.
- Self-acceptance. The development of a positive attitude towards self, marked by an ability to acknowledge areas of experience that had been the subject of self-criticism and rejection.
- Self-actualization or individuation. Moving in the direction of fulfilling potential or achieving an integration of previously conflicting parts of self.
- Enlightenment. Assisting the client to arrive at a higher state of spiritual awakening.
- Problem-solving. Finding a solution to a specific problem that the client had not been able to resolve alone. Acquiring a general competence in problem-solving.
- Psychological education. Enabling the client to acquire ideas and techniques with which to understand and control behaviour.
- Acquisition of social skills. Learning and mastering social and interpersonal skills such as maintenance of eye contact, turn-taking in conversations, assertiveness or anger control.
- Cognitive change. Modification or replacement of irrational beliefs or maladaptive thought patterns associated with self-destructive behaviour.
- Behaviour change. Modification or replacement of maladaptive or self destructive patterns of behaviour.
- Systemic change. Introducing change into the way social systems (e.g. families) operate.
- Empowerment. Working on skills, awareness and knowledge that will enable the client to take control of his or her own life.
- Restitution. Helping the client to make amends for previous destructive behaviour.
- Generativity and social action. Inspiring in the client a desire and capacity to care for others and pass on knowledge (generativity) and to contribute to the collective good through political engagement and community work.
It is unlikely that any one counsellor would attempt to achieve the objectives underlying all the aims in this list. However, any valid counseling approach should be flexible enough to make it possible for the client to use the therapeutic relationship as an arena for exploring whatever dimension of life is most relevant to their well-being at that point in time.
Are there different counseling specialists?
There are several other occupational titles that refer to people who are practicing counseling. A term that is widely used is counseling psychologist. This refers to a counsellor who has initial training in psychology, and who uses psychological methods and models in his or her approach. This label explicitly imports the language of science into counseling, by associating it with a specific scientific discipline. There are also several labels that refer to counselors who work with particular client groups: for example, mental health counselor, marriage counselor or student counselor. The distinctive feature of these practitioners is that they will possess specialist training and expertise in their particular field in addition to a general counseling training.
Is there a difference between counseling and the use of counseling skills?
There are many situations where it can become difficult to draw a line between counseling and the use of counseling skills. A nurse might be providing advise and counsel to the spouse of a chronically ill patient and anyone listening to a tape recording of their sessions might be unable to tell the difference between what the nurse was doing and what a trained bereavement counselor would have done. From the point of view of the client or patient, what he or she is looking for, and receives, is a counseling relationship, which for them serves exactly the same function as going to see a professional counselor in a consulting room. It is probably not helpful to draw rigid lines of professional demarcation which deny that teachers, nurses, probation officers or social workers can ever be counselors to their clients. Nevertheless, it is also important to recognize that clients can become confused, or damaged, when the people who are trying to help them become enmeshed in role conflicts through attempting to be counselor as well as, for instance, teacher or nurse. It can also be damaging for both client and the helper if the counseling process moves into areas beyond the training or competence of the helper. This issue would become clearer if one imagines a police officer counseling a couple for marital discord or counseling a teenager involved in an automobile accident. It would be difficult for the police officer to forget his or her role of a police officer. The client also would find it difficult to forget that the counselor is a police officer. The difficulties involved in making clear distinctions between counseling proper and the use of counseling skills should be appreciated by all those involved in providing counseling or adopting counseling skills.
A few myths about counseling
There are a number of myths attached to seeing a counselor and a few of them are mentioned here. Firstly, it is believed that only “crazy” people need counseling. This is not true. Even normal people require counseling and counselors are just talking about life and how hard life can be. The benefits of counseling should be viewed as stress-relievers like exercising and eating right – just strategies that help make life easier and help to remove stressors. Secondly, it is also believed that accepting help is a sign of weakness. This is also not true. Most people can benefit from counseling at least some point in their lives. Thirdly, counseling is time-consuming. Even this is not true. Research in counseling psychology found that most people feel better within seven to 10 visits. Further, it was also noted that 88 percent of counseling goers reported improvements after just one session. The opportunity to talk uncensored to a nonbiased professional without fear of judgment or repercussions can be life-changing
Prof. K. Madhu
Wellness Hub, Visakhapatnam
I have completed 30 years of teaching and research in psychology at the Department of Psychology and Parapsychology, Andhra University, Visakhapatnam, India.