What Counseling is Not

Written by Steve Rose

Steve Rose, PhD, is an addiction counsellor who assists those struggling with substance abuse, gambling, gaming, and internet addiction.

On the go? Listen to the audio version of the article here:

There are many different myths about counseling. I’ve encountered many people who think counseling is not for them, due to these myths. Instead of trying to convince them otherwise, I’ve found it helpful to first ask about their understanding of counseling to see if it is accurate.

In many cases, a person’s resistance to counseling is rooted in these misunderstandings. Without first addressing these misunderstandings, a person may remain stuck in contemplating change without the motivation to seek additional support. By highlighting these myths, I hope to clarify what counseling is and what it is not.

  1. Counseling is not just advice
  2. Counseling is not cheerleading
  3. Counseling is not necessarily easy
  4. Counseling is not a quick fix
  5. Counseling is not all the same

Let’s look at each of these areas to further dispel some myths about counseling.

Counseling is not just advice

Many people believe counseling simply consists of receiving advice. Since people generally get enough advice from friends and family members, the last thing they want to do is pay someone to tell them something they’ve already heard.

Counseling is far more than advice. In fact, it’s generally a small part of counseling since giving someone advice often does not work. Many people hear advice from their doctor that they need to eat better and exercise, but how often does this change anything? Does a dentist’s advice to floss immediately transform someone’s oral hygiene?

Many people know what they need to do, deep down, but are using their current behaviors to cope with underlying issues. Advice only addresses the tip of the iceberg. Working through the underlying processes collaboratively allows someone to develop healthy ways of moving forward.

Counseling is not cheerleading

Many people believe counselors are supposed to be like cheerleaders, giving constant positive validation and encouragement. We are bombarded by popular messages to “think positive” and “be happy.” A popular song perpetuates this myth in the following lyrics:

“Everything’s gonna be alright
Everything’s gonna be okay
It’s gonna be a good, good life
That’s what my therapists say”

Positive affirmation may feel good in the moment, but it does not generally work in counseling. I did a review of the literature on positive affirmations in my article, “Do Positive Affirmations Work?” finding:

“Positive affirmations do not work for persons trying to boost self-esteem, change negative thoughts, or escape from painful emotions. The evidence suggests positive affirmations only work in individuals who are already positive or high performing.”

Imagine you are going through a difficult time and after sharing the details, a person responds, “It looks like you’re going through a lot, but don’t worry about it, everything will be fine!” This response will likely cause you to think of all the reasons why things will not but fine.

Effective counseling is often counter-intuitive, working in ways contrary to common sense—more about this in the next section.

Counseling is not necessarily easy

Like going to the gym, counseling is not meant to be easy. But if you put in the effort and stick with it, the can be significant changes over time. Like physical training, counseling requires intentionally putting yourself into stressful situations you can safely handle.

For example, if a person tends to avoid specific thoughts or emotions, a counselor may ask if it is okay to inquire further in that area. Collaboratively exploring painful areas allows a person to gain a sense of openness to positive situations as well.

Contrary to the common sense understanding that one should try to eliminate negative thoughts, counseling turns toward them, instead. As shared in my article on How to Stop Living in Your Head, struggling against negativity is like fighting quicksand:

“…imagine you find yourself on quicksand. Your natural reaction might be to run or struggle. The more you do this, the faster you will sink. A more effective approach is to lay down and make as much contact with the quicksand as possible. This increases your surface area, preventing you from sinking.”

Counseling provides a safe, supportive environment to gain contact with negativity and deal with issues preventing you from moving forward more effectively.

Counseling is not a quick fix

Counseling does not solve your problems in a single session. Many people go into counseling, hoping to be “cured,” not realizing it is more like hiring a personal trainer than a plastic surgeon. A counselor can support the process of change, but cannot make the changes for you.

The first session generally begins as more of an assessment where a counselor gathers relevant background information regarding your situation. Throughout the first few sessions, you may also start to question whether or not it helps, since it requires delving into difficult areas and stepping outside of your comfort zone.

Like going to the gym for the first time, you will likely experience discomfort, perhaps wondering if it’s even going to help. Just like fitness, counseling takes time and ongoing committed effort.

Although counseling takes time, if you feel unsupported, it may be a sign you are not seeing the right type of professional or the counselor is not an ideal fit for you. For more on the red flags to look out for, see my article, Why it’s so Hard to Find a Good Therapist.

Counseling is not all the same

One person’s journey in counseling may look very different compared to someone else’s. There is no “one size fit’s all” approach. As a counselor, I meet each client where they are at, tailoring the process to meet their specific needs.

Some people may think counseling is not for them because they know someone who went to counseling and did not have a good experience. Or they know someone who they consider to have “far worse issues,” feeling like their problems are insignificant in comparison.

There is also a stigma around counseling. Some people may think counseling is only for certain types of people, but not for them. To use the fitness metaphor again, personal trainers are used by both beginners and athletes.

Many counselors have counselors, so no matter where you are on your journey, counseling can help if you are looking to optimize your psychological health.

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Want to Try Online Counseling?

Here are a few options worth checking out:

BetterHelp.com is one of the most flexible forms of online counseling. Their main benefit is lower costs, high accessibility through their mobile app, and the ability to switch counselors quickly and easily, until you find the right fit.

It’s almost like having a counselor in your pocket, since you can text, voice-message, or set up video calls whenever you need support. 

For persons struggling with anxious thoughts, depressed moods, low self-esteem, low motivation, or loneliness, check out Better Help here.

Online-therapy.com also offers support for persons looking to optimize their mental toolbox. Click here to learn more about their program based on the evidence-based practice of Cognitive-behavioral Therapy (CBT).

*As an affiliate partner with Better Help and Online-therapy.com, I may receive a referral fee if you purchase products or services through the links provided.

If you are looking for a specialist near you, use the Psychology Today therapist directory here. Although prices are generally higher on this directory, many of the practitioners accept insurance. 

As always, it is important to be critical when seeking help, since the quality of counselors are not consistent. If you are not feeling supported, it may be helpful to seek out another practitioner. I wrote an article on things to consider here.

Looking for Support for an Addiction?

If you live in Canada, I provide virtual addiction counselling. You can contact me here for a free 15 min phone consultation.


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1 Comment

  1. Alice Carroll

    Thanks for pointing out that online counseling can also be an option especially with the pandemic going on. Perhaps it would be best to start looking for adult counseling services soon because there are days lately when I feel too unmotivated to do things that I love and such feelings worry me. There already have been times when I wasted days off from work just lying on my bed.

    Reply

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