Ben was troubled—seriously troubled—by things that were happening at work. He tried to talk to his wife Sandra, but she tended to be judgmental, and Ben felt that she took everyone’s side but his. Now that he thought about it, he had to admit that his marriage might be in trouble as well. He had been trying for years to make Sandra happy, but no matter what he did, it wasn’t good enough, and he was sick of trying.
Ben wanted to talk to someone, but he didn’t know whom he could trust with his most personal feelings. “Friends” he’d previously confided in had assured him of confidentiality but had then betrayed him by telling others. Ben was at a loss. He felt depressed and hopeless and didn’t know if he could go on.
It can be helpful to talk about your problems with close friends and family members. However, sometimes the people around you aren’t capable of providing the help you need.
When you need support, expert guidance, or an objective point of view, talking to a counsellor can help.
Having a support system close to you is important, but counselling is different. Counsellors are “professionally trained listeners.” They can help you get to the root of your difficulties, overcome emotional challenges, and help you make positive changes in your life. They are trained to ask you the hard questions—questions that a family member or friend might not dare to ask, for fear of hurting your feelings. And while a counsellor doesn’t want to hurt your feelings either, sometimes it’s necessary to ask tough questions that require you to look deep into yourself and find an honest answer.
What Counseling Can’t Do
Unfortunately, many people engage in counselling expecting the counsellor to “fix” them, to tell them what to do, or to tell them how to change someone else. But a good, ethical counsellor will never tell you what to do or how to live your life. The counsellor may suggest things to try, but would never tell Ben, for example, to quit his job or to divorce Sandra.
Ben had tried for years to make Sandra happy. What he didn’t realize was that he doesn’t have the power to make Sandra happy. Whether or not to be happy—or angry, or defensive, or any other emotion—is completely up to Sandra.
No one can fix Ben—or Sandra, or you.
Whether or not to change is entirely your choice and is completely within your power.
As Ghandi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
Who Benefits from Counseling?
You don’t have to be diagnosed with a mental health problem before you seek counselling. Many people find it beneficial to share everyday concerns with a counsellor. If you have problems in a relationship, problems at work, or self-doubt about your parenting skills, talking to a counselor might help immensely. Or you may seek counselling for more serious issues, such as getting through a divorce, grieving the death of a loved one, or transitioning to a new environment after a difficult move across the country when you’ve left friends and family behind.
No subject is too insignificant to talk to a counsellor about!
Getting the Most Out of Counseling
- Tell your counselor what your goals are for counselling.
- Keep an open mind. Resistance to changing yourself is normal. Be willing to consider new ways of thinking, acting, and looking at things.
- Be open and honest. Your counsellor can’t help you if you hold back details, especially details that you’re not proud of.
- Practice at home what you learn in counselling. Keep a diary of your healing journey. It will make interesting reading for you some day!
How Does Counselling Work?
First of all, counselling won’t work if you don’t trust your counsellor. Studies have shown that what is called the “therapeutic relationship” between counsellor and client is the single most important factor in determining whether counselling is going to work or not. Signs that you may need to change counsellors include:
- Your counsellor betrays your confidence. Counsellors are bound by rules of confidentiality, except if you are going to harm yourself or others, or if you are unable to take care of your most basic needs.
- Your counsellor tells you that your problems or concerns are not important.
- Your counsellor seems to have a personal agenda.
- Your counsellor does more talking than listening.
- Your counsellor insists she knows better than you what to do and how to live your life.
- Your counsellor is judgmental and condemns you for things you’ve done in your life.
Give your counsellor a chance, though. Don’t make up your mind to seek another counsellor just because he asks you tough questions.
Improvement in counselling comes from taking a hard look at yourself and taking responsibility for your actions. Maybe you’d like—and it certainly is easier—to blame your current circumstances on your upbringing. Without a doubt, your past has influenced the choices you’ve made along the way, but it doesn’t destine you to stay the way you are. Every second of every day, every day of your life, you have choices about your actions and your thoughts. You can’t change the past, but you do have power over the way you think and act now and in the future.
Counselling can be time-consuming and challenging. Uncomfortable emotions and thoughts may arise as the counsellor asks you questions and helps you look at things differently than you are used to. That’s part of the treatment process. But counselling will give you tools for transforming your life so you can relate better to others, take steps to improve your life and develop tools to better cope with whatever comes your way.
The real test is not in the counselling room, though. The real test is putting into practice the things you learn in counselling once you leave the session.
Maybe your counsellor has asked you what you think would happen if you tried to change the way you think about something. For example, let’s say that you are a single parent, and your only child, just finishing high school, has decided to move away to attend university rather than go to the nearby college and live at home. You are devastated; you feel abandoned. “How could he do this to me? How could he leave me alone like this? Doesn’t he know how lonely I will be without him? He obviously doesn’t appreciate anything I’ve ever done for him!”
Your counsellor might encourage you to try to see things differently. Instead of dwelling on how alone you will be, and how selfish and ungrateful you think he is for wanting to start his adult life, try thinking about how grateful you are that you have an ambitious, intelligent, motivated son who is able to pursue his dreams. You have given up a lot to raise him to be the fine person he is. Now you can devote more time to your dreams. Take a class; volunteer; travel!
Practicing this skill might be difficult for you at first. It’s hard to change thoughts and attitudes that you’ve held for years. But it’s not impossible. And it’s guaranteed that once you change those thoughts—replace the negative thoughts with positive ones—you will feel and behave much better.
How to Know If Counselling Is Working
There are a few simple ways to tell if counselling is working. Just honestly answer these questions:
- Is your life-changing for the better?
- Are you meeting the goals you have set?
- Is counselling challenging you, stretching you beyond your comfort zone?
- Do you feel like you understand yourself better?
- Do you feel more confident, empowered, and happy?
If you can answer yes to any of these questions, counselling is definitely doing you some good!
One Final Thought…
If anyone tells you that counselling is a sign of weakness, don’t believe it.
It’s strong people who admit that life isn’t perfect, that they don’t have all the answers, and that they need an objective perspective.