What is Counseling, Anyway?

What Is Counseling, Anyway?

Pat Wyman

What is “counseling”?  Is it the same as “therapy”, a term often used interchangeably?  When a person seeks counseling or therapy, what does she have in mind?  And what goals does a counselor or therapist have for the person seeking assistance?

These are questions that would be expected to come up before someone decides to get help with psychological matters.  I suspect, however, that they are rarely considered.  I know that many years ago, when I was looking for some answers in my life, it never occurred to me to ask any questions.  Subsequently, in the decades I’ve been a therapist, I don’t recall many people asking questions.  The most compelling reason for someone to seek help with emotional issues is pain.  When people are in pain, they generally don’t delve into what counseling or therapy is all about.  They just want the fire put out.

I personally avoid using the term “counseling” although I am a licensed professional counselor.  The dictionary tells us that counseling means giving advice, something I patently avoid doing.  I prefer the term “therapy” although here the dictionary indicates that therapy is the treatment of disease.  I struggle with that because I don’t consider my clients ill.  Instead, I prefer to think that we are working together to alleviate dis-ease.  I am strongly adverse to diagnosing dis-ease as mental illness and refuse to apply a Diagnostic and Statistical Manual name and number to a person.  I think terminology is important.  When we name something, it is a powerful thing.  If I call myself a counselor, I can begin to think of myself as someone who is wise enough to advise.  If I see myself as a therapist, I can fall into the trap of thinking of my clients as ill.  If I then tag my client with a psychological disorder, I will be inclined to think of that person that way and see that my job is to fix her.

Those who consider themselves “counselors” are most likely providing what is commonly called cognitive or talk therapy.  Talk therapy engages the left brain because the left brain is where language abilities are located.  It is also where rational thinking takes place.  The cognitive counselor employs the client’s rational abilities to explore the issues, to illuminate limiting beliefs, examine options and employ effective coping skills.  Providing counsel or advice seems to be well suited for this type of approach.

The alternative is affective or right brain therapy which explores ideation located deep within the subconscious that overrides conscious control and escapes rational thinking.  Since at least 90% of who we are and what we do is controlled by the subconscious, I turned my efforts in that direction.  Affective therapy does not advise or fix.  Using affective techniques, an affective therapist can facilitate a client’s exploration of subconscious material and allow her to make any changes she considers necessary.

Psychological type comes in handy in facilitating affective work for a couple of reasons.  As stated earlier, almost everyone entering therapy is brought in by emotional pain.  When someone is under such emotional pain, she is operating out of her Enneagram defense.  I will administer the MBTI® but spend a great deal of time afterwards discussing the results because the Enneagram part of personality was most likely answering many of the questions thereby throwing off the scores.  When the correct MBTI® type is determined, I know who to look for during the course of our work together.  I will want to encourage my client to trust that part of herself and I will watch to see if she is using the perceiving (S/N) and judging (T/F) functions of her MBTI® type to make good, rational decisions for herself.  The danger in not knowing a client’s MBTI® type is that I am more likely to project my perspective onto her if I don’t know who she really is.  In other words, it would be easy to fall into the trap of “when you see things my way, you will be OK.”

By exploring the subconscious issues that caused the irrational Enneagram defense to be in place, I can help her disengage the early programming, and then feel strong and empowered enough to make good decisions for herself.  I know that it is time to wrap up therapy when I see her consistently operating out of her MBTI and being highly aware of when her Enneagram defense tries to take control.

I feel that those of us in the field of clinical psychology need to ask ourselves some of the opening questions.  How do we define our role in assisting our clients?  A client has the right to know whether the professional she is employing sees her/his job as one who advises, fixes or facilitates.