What's counselling all about?
Updated: Nov 4, 2021
Surely I should be able to get all the support I need from my family and friends?
Life isn't always easy and we all have difficult periods when it might feel as though we're not coping too well. Many of us are fortunate enough to have close and supportive relationships with family members and friends who are there for us when we need a listening ear - good social relationships are an essential part of our overall well-being and probably have the biggest influence on how we measure our happiness and sense of self worth. Yet, despite being social creatures, there is often a belief that we should be strong and able to cope on our own - that to need some kind of help is to display weakness. For many people, asking for support from someone else can take courage; so perhaps recognising that we can't go it alone is in itself a kind of strength?
For those of us who live by ourselves or experience relationship difficulties, life can feel understandably bleak when there's nobody to talk to; but sometimes we can feel almost as alone if we don't feel understood by the people close to us. We've probably all had that friend with whom we've shared something that's worrying us, only to be immediately sidetracked by being told what a hard time they are having. We find ourselves sitting there, nodding and listening before eventually giving up and leaving - maybe feeling even worse.
Then there are the family members who worry and become upset when we share our concerns. We then feel guilty for burdening them and decide it's better for everyone if we just keep our problems to ourselves. Often we get well meant, yet unwanted advice that feels annoying and unhelpful; we don't always want somebody to tell us what to do - we just want somebody to listen, without judging or attempting to fix us.
The Difference Between Counsellors and Friends
The most important difference between a relationship with a counsellor and our other relationships is that we don't have to be anything else to one another. Our counsellor isn't also our friend, colleague or family member, so there is no dual relationship expectation that our therapist needs to fulfil, or that we need to fulfil for them; this makes our relationship as free as possible from the worry that we might be judged or say the wrong thing.
In a healthy therapeutic relationship, it's all about us. We are not expected to listen to our counsellor's woes - this is a protected space for us alone. It's a weekly opportunity to come into a healthier relationship with ourselves and discover who we are and what we need, perhaps for the first time?
How do I know if I need counselling?
You may benefit from counselling if you have been feeling anxious or unhappy for more than a few weeks. Sometimes it's clear what the problem is, such a relationship breakdown or a bereavement, other times it's harder to work out why we feel awful. If you are having trouble sleeping, finding it difficult to go to work or feeling that you're not coping very well with ordinary life, then it might be time to get some help.
It's often a good idea to see your GP first, especially if you are feeling unsafe or that you might harm yourself or somebody else. Your GP will be able to tell you what services are available on the NHS and how long you might have to wait. She might also
suggest medication to help you feel better able to cope and improve your sleep. However, although medication can be helpful for some people, it's better used alongside rather than as a substitute for counselling which will help you understand why you are struggling and how to begin to feel better. Your GP should also be the first contact for alcohol or drug related problems.
What kind of therapy?
The kind of therapy you will be offered on the NHS very much depends on the resources available in your area. Sadly, there are large variations in mental health services across the UK and in many areas there is a long wait for treatment. The most commonly prescribed therapy is a short course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) which can be very helpful in enabling you to change the way you think about your problems and gain more control over anxiety and depressive thought patterns. It's a good form of therapy for people who want to work on their current situation and who enjoy learning new techniques and strategies to work with.
If you feel that your problems are rooted more in the past, or you have suffered abuse or trauma of any kind, you may benefit from a slower paced, more relational kind of therapy from a person centred or existential kind of counsellor. Many therapists describe themselves as Humanistic and Integrative, which means that they are trained in many different approaches and will work with you in a way that's personally helpful for you. You may have to pay for this privately, but it means that you get to choose your own counsellor rather than having to take the first person available. You also choose for yourself when you are ready to finish therapy rather than have that decided for you by a limited number of sessions. If you aren't sure what you need, then most counsellors will offer you a free or reduced cost session so that you can meet and ask questions. It's very important to find someone who feels like a good match for you, so it's perfectly acceptable to interview several therapists to find one that you like.
There are several places to look for a suitable counsellor in your area: All of these links will take you to qualified and trusted therapists who are members of a regulating professional body.