Chatting and counselling are not the same.
I’m sick of the number of times I have heard people say things like this:
“Counselling won’t do any good — it’s just talking.”
“Talking about stuff doesn’t help, so counselling is a waste of time.”
“If I wanted to talk about my problems, I’d talk to a friend — there’s no waiting list and it’s free.”
These comments stem from supreme ignorance regarding counselling. I believe most of the people who say these types of remarks have never tried counselling. Their perceptions are based on snippets of (often mis)information they have gleaned from television, social media and the tabloid press.
I’ll repeat it in the hope that the words sink in: chatting and counselling are NOT the same.
If you have never experienced counselling and would like some background information, check out this brief overview from the NHS.
Counselling provides you with a safe environment.
One of the main benefits of counselling is that it provides a safe space for you to express your feelings. You can talk without interruptions. You can say anything without fear of being overheard. It’s confidential and you won’t be judged.
Clarification: you might feel as though you will be judged, but that doesn’t make it true. There is a possibility you will be judged by your counsellor, since humans have a tendency to make automatic judgments, but a professional will never expose you to this judgment because they understand that it’s their issue, not yours.
This isn’t true of the people in your life, no matter how empathetic and compassionate they are, because they cannot separate themselves from their emotional relationship with you.
They also bring a lot of emotional baggage to the conversation — knowledge of your history, assumptions they have made about you based on your interactions, their own desires (to be liked by you, to avoid conflict, to steer you onto a path which suits them). All of these things influence the conversation in ways which, while well-meaning, can be unhelpful.
Because you have no emotional connection to your counsellor, you can talk about yourself, your relationships and your problems in a different way.
You don’t need to censor yourself. You don’t have to worry about hurting the other person’s feelings. You don’t need to consider the other person’s life and whether what you say might be insensitive given their circumstances.
You can focus on yourself 100%
Maybe that sounds unimportant, but unless you are a narcissist it’s likely that you seldom have the opportunity to talk about your situation without considering anyone else. When you chat with a friend, you not only consider their feelings, but also the information you are revealing about people they know — your partner, children, parents, siblings, other friends, etc.
When you talk to a friend, you censor what you share. You do it to spare their feelings and also to show yourself in a certain light, to avoid jeopardising your relationship. This means you are presenting a skewed, inaccurate picture of your problems.
Doing this isn’t a bad thing — you are protecting yourself, the person with whom you are talking and other friends/family members — but it isn’t the most conducive way for you to find solutions to your problems. Especially if you have complex mental health problems.
Counselling enables you to set out your problems with as much clarity and accuracy as you can, free of the emotional politics which are present in any relationship.
The counsellor will ask questions which allow you to see your situation from a different perspective. He or she will explore the issues you bring to the table and help you choose what to do. Often, he or she will play devil’s advocate and encourage you to answer the questions you have been too afraid to ask, such as whether talking a certain course of action would be truly disastrous or if there would be a period of discomfort followed by greater happiness in the long term.
Compare this to a chat with friends who, even with the best intentions, will say things like “you can’t leave your husband because he loves you” or “you shouldn’t quit your well-paid job because you don’t know if you’ll need the money in future.” These comments are usually based on their own fears and ideas about “conventional behaviour.” They are unhelpful and potentially damaging, no matter how well-meaning the spirit in which they are said.
The result is whereas chatting with a friend can be reassuring, it will not allow you to fully consider your options in the same way that counselling can.
Counsellors are trained to deal with mental health problems.
Your friends are not. I’m pointing out the obvious because it’s important: a counsellor will recognise when what you are saying is indicative that you intend to harm yourself or another person. They won’t shut you off when you discuss feeling suicidal, convinced that it means you are about to kill yourself today. Neither will they ignore the warnings which untrained people might not recognise.
Mental health professionals have protocols in place which enable them to handle dangerous situations. When you attend your first counselling appointment, the counsellor tells you that everything you say is confidential but if they think you are in danger of harming yourself or another person, they have a duty to intervene. If this happens, they will follow the appropriate protocol.
In contrast, your friends probably wouldn’t know what to do if they believed you were about to harm yourself or someone else. They might take a course of action which puts you, themselves or other people at risk through their ignorance.
This applies to their comments as much as contacting authorities. Many people make well-meaning comments which could cause distress and cause further damage to your mental health. Because your friends haven’t been trained in counselling, they are liable to make these comments when you are at your most vulnerable.
They will also find it difficult to hear you say certain things. It is horrifying to hear your friend talk about feeling suicidal, for example, even if they emphasise that they are not about to act on those feelings. Your friends’ instinct when they hear you say things which make them feel uncomfortable is to protect themselves by silencing you. This leaves you feeling, at best, unheard and frustrated.
It could also have more harmful effects, such as making you think you have no right to feel this way or that you are selfish/stupid/a terrible person — none of which is true. A counsellor, on the other hand, will listen. You can voice your deepest, darkest thoughts and emotions. They will empathise and empower you to explore these feelings.
Counselling is a safe way of expressing yourself: you won’t be silenced or exposed to comments which make you feel worse.
There are different types of counselling.
When you hear people talking about counselling, they usually give the impression that there is one definitive type of counselling. There is not.
There are many types of talking therapy and different counsellors use different approaches. Furthermore, counsellors with similar approaches may have different styles. For example, some might be more blunt and direct, whereas others focus on presenting themselves as compassionate and supportive. There is no “right” way and it may take some time and experimentation to find an approach and an individual counsellor who suits you.
Unfortunately, many people who try counselling don’t take this into account. They have a single bad experience and conclude that all counselling is crap and useless.
When they voice this opinion, it can lead people with no experience of counselling to think they are correct and have authority because they have tried counselling. This is dangerous. It prevents people from seeking help for their mental health problems.
Of course there are crap counsellors — there are people in all professions who somehow slip through the net despite their skills or manner of working not being up to the required standard. It shouldn’t happen, but it does. However, these people are a minority and should not be used as an example of the profession as a whole. If you encounter a counsellor who behaves unprofessionally, report them and find another counsellor — don’t write off counselling as an option because you have a bad experience.
You may also benefit from different types and styles of talking therapy at different times.
When I first had counselling, for instance, I saw a very nice lady who had been told by the NHS to deliver a CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) focused service because the efficacy of CBT has been proven in studies and appears to be more effective than counselling on its own. I diligently worked through the exercises and found that they didn’t help — I felt a little better during sessions, but this wore off soon after I got home. Looking back, I realise I needed a different type of talking therapy and even plain old counselling would have been better than CBT at the time. Later on, after receiving a year of drama therapy, I was ready to use those CBT techniques I’d learnt and nowadays I find them helpful.
The point is not to lambast counselling or any other therapy if it doesn’t work for you. It might work for other people. And don’t discount the possibility of it working for you in the future.
Talking with friends is great, but it’s not therapy.
I want to make it clear that I value talking to friends. I love chatting and do it a lot. At no point in this post have I meant to give the impression that talking has no value. In fact, I advocate talking about your mental health as much as you can — but in addition to seeking professional help.
It can be helpful to discuss your problems with friends, as long as you are aware that it cannot be a neutral exchange. When you have a relationship with someone, your conversations are loaded. It is a different type of dialogue.
I encourage you to chat about your mental health problems to anyone you trust, but be aware that talking to friends and/or family is not an alternative to counselling.
Chatting can be a useful strategy in managing your mental health, but if you need more help don’t dismiss counselling as “just talking.” Don’t assume that it’s the same as hashing out your problems with your friends. And definitely don’t make ignorant comments about counselling when you haven’t given it a fair shot.