Many people have a good understanding of what counseling is and what they can expect from a counselor. However, I still encounter skeptics on a regular basis, people who discount counseling as something designed for “crazy” people. Most of them know of at least one person who “needs” counseling, and seem somewhat offended at my suggestion that everyone (including them) could benefit from counseling.

Many skeptics have been raised believing that counseling is for the weak, those who cannot handle life, who are somehow less than, yes, even “crazy.” This may have stemmed from input our parents and grandparents received about insane asylums and psychotherapy. Movies like “One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest” may have helped concrete the idea that counseling is for “crazy” people.

I would like to take this opportunity to explore what counseling means to me, and hopefully alleviate some of the concerns people have about counseling. First, I would like to point out that no two counseling sessions are alike. That is to say that your experience will be as unique as you are, even if two people saw the same counselor. Who you are, the experiences you have had, and the counselor’s choice if therapy and background will all factor in to your unique counseling session.

Counselors learn about numerous therapy modalities, skills, and techniques (in Graduate school, during internship, through supervision, workshops and intensive trainings). What they use with whom depends largely on the individual (client), his presenting concerns, and his response to the chosen treatment. It is the counselor’s task to attend to what is and is not working with each individual client (with feedback from the client) and adjust her approach accordingly. Ultimately, there is no one “right” way to conduct therapy; therapy is a complex, intricately woven exchange that ultimately creates new neural pathways in the brain, leading to change.

Counseling changes your brain? Yes, new neural pathways are created in the brain with new experiences, and counseling allows us to experience a new way of being in relation to others and in the world. In the most basic sense, a counseling session consists of the therapist listening carefully to what the client says, listening for common threads, core beliefs, and thinking errors (such as ‘all or nothing’, mind reading, and fortune telling), all the while reflecting empathy, kindness, and a curiosity about the person’s unique experience and his perception of his experience.

For some, simply the experience of being deeply heard and understood brings relief. Still further relief and an understanding of one’s presenting concerns are brought about with psychoeducation (teaching of a psychological topic) and gentle exploration of the roots, and perhaps the history, of those concerns.

Counseling offers a way to remove obstacles, achieve success, become “unstuck,” and learn new ways of being in the world. An important point to make is that this work is done by the client, not done “to” the client. The counselor is not an expert telling you how to be, but rather a guide assisting you in your self-exploration.

~RuthAnne Alexander, MS