Overhauling The Helping Profession: A Guide To Good Counselling

Posted on by Alyson Jones. Posted in Blog, Huffington Post.

We live in a busy world with a glut of information and “self-help” advice being thrown at us though social media. Along the way traditional therapy seems to be getting lost in the mix. As a professional therapist and professor I often tell my psychology students that therapy is at risk of becoming irrelevant if we do not find a way to bring the ‘practical’ back to counselling.

Many people envision therapy as the answer to some sort of problem-based experience, in which they recline on a couch and talk about their past. The entertainment industry loves to characterize this aspect of therapy, right down to the stoic therapist saying, “How do you feel about that?” The client lays on a well-upholstered sofa, or at the very least sits on a large comfy chair, and talks endlessly about his or her feelings or past. In these portrayals, the therapist is a dispassionate, neutral being who asks occasional questions and shares academic-sounding insights. Another popular depiction of counselling is a room filled with wind chimes and incense, and a woman in flowing robes encouraging you to get in touch with your inner child. Neither of these are my experience of counselling, nor would I think my clients would describe anything close to these circumstances — except for the fact that as a tall woman I tend to wear long skirts and I do have some comfortable furniture that I prefer my clients not lie on!

In order to understand what we can do for you, let me first introduce a brief history of therapy and some of the challenges it has encountered. The psychiatric-medical model was the beginning of professional psychology. This model is often described as having a large gap between the therapist and the person seeking assistance. The subject is termed a “patient” rather than a “client,” – this represents a potential for a power dynamic in the relationship between the therapist and the “patient.” As originally conceived, the psychiatric-medical model contributed greatly to understanding human behaviours and has helped many people along the way. The model also has inspired a large body of academic research attached to it that can directly benefit the people who access psychological services.

As psychology developed, a movement emerged that addressed the power dynamic: the counsellor began operating from a place of unconditional positive regard for the person seeking therapy. In the non-directive model of therapy the “patient” became the “client.” At the core of this optimistic model of therapy is respect for the client and a trust that, given the right environment and circumstance, people have the capacity to heal themselves. On the downside, this non-directive model of therapy has been known to leave some clients feeling that they have spoken to a nice person, but that they have not received a lot of practical help. Although I do positively regard my clients and believe in their capacity to heal, I also feel an obligation to provide common sense information and practical strategies for life solutions. This is how I believe my profession needs to evolve.

It is my belief that good counselling can provide a much-needed service in our modern world, but therapy needs to grow and adapt with the times. We have a society filled with very busy, potentially stressed people who want concrete results and some who still fear being stigmatized by seeking therapy or having to go to the “head shrinker.” As I have never figured out the secrets of “head shrinking,” good therapy should help people understand that effective guidance has nothing to do with either voodoo, mystical answers or detached academics. It is time to demystify the self-help counselling world and provide the client with true value for their time and money.

In order to be creative in our lives, we need to understand ourselves.

I do have a warning for those who are seeking assistance. There are many very good therapists and coaches, but like any profession, they range from the adequate to the truly exceptional. To complicate things further, there are also “counsellors” and “coaches” who have no professional affiliations or standardized training. There are a whole slew of people out there who call themselves counsellors and coaches without any standardized training, and who assert that they can heal the world because they were somehow healed. But, life experience does not immediately qualify one to work as a professional in this field. If you or someone you know is using the psychological services, make sure the service provider has jumped through the appropriate professional hoops. Any therapist of value has done their fair share of hoop-jumping.

Another related and worrisome trend is that professional therapy has become confused with the self-help genre. Although there are many excellent books aimed at self-growth and development, common sense and discernment are needed when sorting through all the material out there. The self-help field is saturated and the quality of information provided can vary tremendously. There are many people who associate psychology and the “helping” professions with insubstantial and unsatisfactory “fluff.” Good therapy should be useful, thought-provoking and motivating for the participant. I would much rather be your guide on the journey than approach you as if you need “help”; all you may need is a few pointers along the way. I have always felt bothered by the lack of practical information that many people encounter in therapy. I’d rather not contribute to that ever-growing, ever-annoying, and all-knowing group who believe you need to be helped and that they have all the answers.

Although I have noted some concerns about the helping professions, I want to make it clear that there is significant value in counselling, psychological literature, and modern psychology. In order to be creative in our lives, we need to understand ourselves. Good therapy can provide an effective path for personal development. I encourage people to be open to the experience and find a counsellor who is competent and willing to provide practical information and a useful service.