Counselling Is Not For Everyone

From time to time, someone contacts me and asks me to sell them on counselling.  They tell me that they are thinking of pursuing therapy and they want me to tell them why this would be a good option for them.

I resist the urge to say that I’m a counsellor, not a sales person, and that I feel no impulse to persuade them to choose counselling as a vehicle for helping them in their situation.   But, I will usually say that counselling is not for everyone and that it works best when the person believes that it could help them or that it’s an approach that inherently makes sense to them.

It’s easy for counsellors to get all ‘rah, rah, rah’ about their profession.  Many of us have been through counselling before and have obtained personal benefit from it.  I think very fondly of one of my previous therapists and how helpful he was in helping me grow and change. Us counsellors have also seen plenty of people transform in amazing ways and the research shows that counselling in general is effective.

And…counselling is not for everyone. I want to be very clear that when it comes to psychological growth and change there are many valid ways up the mountain.  Counselling is but one of them.

Other Valid Ways of Healing

  • Support from friends, family or other loved ones.  If a person’s network of support is strong, this may be enough to get them through the tough times.
  • Involvement in a spiritual practice or religion – Their practice gives the person the tools they need to overcome mental suffering and make meaningful, lasting change.  Meditation, yoga, going to church, temple, mosque or synagogue, hiking…
  • Support Groups – Can include groups that are professionally led or peer-directed groups (for example, 12-step groups). These can be a lifeline.
  • Connection with a meaningful activity – People regularly tell me how their lives have been transformed by things like music, writing, a sport even a fulfilling career.
  • Physical activity / exercise – Can yield profound effects on our brain chemistry. Studies show that the effects of exercise are on par with the effects of antidepressant medication.
  • Medical care – The treatment of underlying health conditions can make a tremendous difference in a person’s psychological wellbeing, just as untreated illness can be a tremendous detriment.
  • Medications – While a dirty word to some, many people have told me that they have been helped greatly by antidepressants. And certainly, others have had very negative experiences with such medications.  My role as a counsellor is to support people in their choices, not to pass judgement about these choices.
  • Alternative Medicine and Holistic Health Practices – Over the years, clients have reported the benefits of massage, chiropractic, naturopathy, chinese medicine, homeopathy, aryuveda, accupuncture, etc.  These treatments, like counselling, are not for everyone, but can be extremely useful.
  • Nutritional Factors – Healthy eating is an important variable in effecting our sense of wellbeing.  Note, that “healthy” need not mean “puritanical” and should certainly not be deprivational. A diet containing no sweets or other so-called ‘unhealthy’ foods is not sustainable for most people long-term.

Factors Which Reduce Success in Counselling

In addition to the fact that counselling is simply not the right choice for some people, there are additional factors that can reduce its success.  This list is certainly not exhaustive.

  • A person is told by someone else that they need counselling or should seek it out – the impetus for counselling is external, not internal.  This does not always mean that suggesting it is a bad thing, especially if the person hearing the message trusts the advice that is given to them, but this often does not work.
  • The person feels coerced to receive counselling – for example, they are given an ultimatum or an ‘intervention’ or they are mandated to receive help.
  • The individual considers themselves a “lone wolf.” They prefer not to ask for help and to do everything on their own.  While I agree that people can benefit enormously from reaching out to others, if the person is not convinced of this or sees no value in this line of thinking, counselling can feel involuntary.
  • The person values other forms of healing (see above section) or they feel that counselling would interfere somehow with the healing methods they have chosen. For example, some people may feel that counselling is in opposition to their religion.
  • There is no cultural precedent for counselling – counselling is uncommon or non-existent in their home country.  The person may be unaware of what counselling is, how it could help, or that it just does not make sense.
  • The person has had a bad experience in counselling in the past and will never go back.
  • The person has grown up in a family situation where they were directly or indirectly taught not to trust and opening up to another would feel too emotionally risky.
  • A person may believe in counselling but not feel emotionally ready for it.  They are aware that through counselling they may face things that they do not want to or are not ready to look at.
  • Timing – The person is not at a place in their life where they have the time for counselling or the emotional demands of counselling would put a strain on other aspects of their lives.
  • Financial reasons – Counselling is expensive and is unfortunately not covered by provincial health plans, unless the person is able to find a physician, such a psychiatrist, who provides it. While some people receive coverage through their workplace extended health plans, many do not have such plans.  For those of limited financial means, I have published a list of low-cost counselling options in Metro Vancouver.

If counselling appeals as an option, it can be a very helpful way to help through life’s many challenges.  Take the time to find a counsellor who is right for you.  If counselling doesn’t seem right, maybe it isn’t.