Looking for a counsellor can feel complicated and overwhelming. What kinds of counsellors are there? And what kind of counsellor would most help you with your current difficulties? Here’s my take on that question.
“What do you do?”
“What do you do?” a stranger asks in a friendly attempt to get to know you better.
I know from talking to my clients that this can be a difficult question for a lot of people. Feelings of inadequacy or self doubt, fear of judgement, or the big question arising… what am I doing with my life? Sometimes the mere mention of work can bring up stress and anxiety.
Even for the luckier ones who love their work it can be a difficult question. Will they be interested? Will we have anything in common? Will this conversation go anywhere?
The Literal Answer
“I’m a counsellor,” I reply.
“What kind of counsellor?” is often the next question.
This one is harder to answer. I’m sure there have been times when this poor stranger has just been trying to clarify whether I’m a talking therapist or a member of Brighton and Hove City Council, only to have me launch into an explanation of the theoretical basis of my work.
And sometimes that’s the right answer. If I’m talking to another therapist, or someone with experience in the world of mental health and wellbeing, I might explain that I’m an integrative counsellor. That my work is underpinned by psychodynamic thinking, but I meet my clients with a person-centred way of being. I might explain that I use tools from TA and Gestalt, and take a mostly Jungian approach to dream analysis.
At this point, however, the stranger at the cocktail party might be wishing they had never asked.
So… what do I actually do?
I think it’s time I came up with a better answer.
What Kind of Counsellor? The Real Answer
I can listen better than the other people in your life.
There are two reasons for this. Firstly, unlike friends and family members, I am not involved in your day-to-day life. I don’t know your difficult boss, their grieving sister, your supportive but distracted friends. I have no vested interests. Over time, I can get to know your experiences, your stories – your lives – closely. But always with that crucial distance that frees me to listen really deeply. And without getting distracted by my own concerns about how we will pay the mortgage if you make a career change, or what Aunty Jane will think if you decide on a trial separation.
Secondly, I have years of training and experience in how to listen really, really well. We call it listening on many levels, because all those psychological theories I study are there waiting in the back of my mind. As you are speaking, and I’m listening, that distance and knowledge enable me to make links you might not have noticed, and see patterns you might have missed.
So I listen. I don’t judge. I stay curious about you and your relationships. I notice things you might not have, or I see them differently, and sometimes together we reframe them.
I have ideas and coping mechanisms if you’re are struggling to stay grounded through your anxiety, or keep functioning under great stress.
I will draw your attention to your own feelings and needs, teach you to listen to what your body has been trying to tell you all along.
I care. And I encourage self-care.
I keep listening, and being there, no matter how hard things are. I stay connected even when it’s really tough; when you’re stuck, or struggling, or lost, confused, or feeling utterly broken.
And in between the sessions, I process the work. I read and listen to things that give me new ideas. I think about your stories, and what else they might mean, what I might have missed in the moment.
How Counselling Works Over Time
Then we come back and do it all again. Over time a deep trust is built, and together we come to see things more clearly. Sometimes that is enough, and you might feel better. On the other hand that new perspective might free you to see what you want to change, or how you want to do things differently. I can support you through that too.
The number one thing I have learnt through all that studying is that mountains of research clearly demonstrate that whether you think of yourself as an integrative counsellor, a psychodynamic or humanistic therapist, or even a CBT practitioner, it is the quality of the relationship between therapist and client that determines the outcome of the therapy.
So what kind of counsellor should you visit? One who will listen really closely, support and challenge you to make the changes youwant.
And when you’re as interested in people and relationships as I am, however you define it, it’s the most rewarding work there is.