Clients often ask me: “What is the difference between counselling and therapy?” In this blog post I clarify how I see this difference and how I apply it in my practice.
What is Therapy?
In our current times, therapy means “curing”. When someone goes for therapy in a medical setting they hope to heal from a wound, disease or illness. In a mental health environment it means that someone hopes to find relief from mental pain or anguish. This pain could be caused by something like depression or anxiety, trauma or stress or a general sense of discomfort about work, love, friendships or a perception of loneliness. Behind the need to find therapy lies a feeling that something is wrong.
Therapy these days tries to fix a mental problem as efficiently, as effectively and as quickly as possible. However, the short-term positive results of these approaches tend to fade after a few months. And many people find themselves back where they were earlier.
In olden days therapeia meant “care”, not “cure”. The intention behind therapy was to tend to the needs of individuals: what is missing in their lives, how can we respect what is happening and try to deeply understand it, in a way that honours both the person and “the problem”? What happens when we separate the person from the problem?
Depending on national regulation, “therapy” is a protected phrase. In Switzerland for example, only clinical psychologist are allowed to provide therapy, or to call themselves therapists. Clinical psychologists concentrate on diagnosing patients according to criteria set out by psychiatry. The therapies they then use have been tested along criteria of medicinal science. However, much (if not most) of the human mind and human consciousness remains a mystery. Up to today, psychiatry can’t explain the root causes of, for example, depression or anxiety.
What is Counselling?
Counsellors do not speak of “patients” but of “clients”. This choice of words indicates a different attitude towards the people they work with. Human beings are more than the sum of their biology: hormones, neurons, neurotransmitters, etcetera. We are also the result of our own choices, of our environment, of our bonds of attachment in childhood, of our interaction with the cultures and religions in our immediate surroundings. Apart from being rational, we also long for love, romance and intimacy. We not only look rationally at the world around us, many of us also feel spiritual desires and spiritual resonances. Many of us are looking for meaning and purpose, to give us direction or to provide us depth. Counselling is a process that concentrates on these aspects of life, more than on the problems we perceive of.
Counsellors will try to understand how certain issues are part of the bigger picture in the lives of their clients. A counsellor will walk with the client through historic causes of current behaviour, thoughts and feelings, and through spiritual challenges. A counsellor will look with the client for purpose, meaning and insights.
A counsellor will, however, not “counsel” the client. The choices you make are yours, and yours alone. Providing advice does not strengthen your own skills, and will not empower you.
For me the main difference between therapy and individual counselling lies in my attitude towards you, the client. You are much more than the “problem” that might have inspired you to search for a psychologist. I am as interested in how the issue presents itself in your life, as I am in the stories of your life. Your successes, your vulnerabilities and your strengths, your dreams and hopes. The sources of your pains and the sources of your contentment and joy.