Counsellors: Are They The Real Deal?

Many counselling clients at one point or another may have wondered what their counsellor is really like when they’re not in the office, and clients might even have a few ideas about that.

Sometimes we may not even be able to imagine! Clients may be shocked to see their therapist at the swimming pool, grocery store or the movies. Counsellors are people too but sometimes it’s mind-bending to imagine them outside the four walls of their counselling office!

But for those who do, is wondering about your counsellor’s life outside the therapy office just a question of curiosity? I don’t think so. I believe that at the heart of this question are some deeper questions:

Are Counsellors Genuine People?

The legendary counselling theorist Carl Rogers believed that genuineness was one of the most important qualities that counsellors bring to their work. This is something that can’t be faked and counselling clients are generally very good at picking up on any faux sentiment a counsellor might express.  The stereotyped “I understand,” coupled with a pitying look may come to mind.

We may wonder, does my counsellor behave like they do in session? Are they a genuine human being with a consistent personality inside and outside the counselling office? We may have questions like, are they in a good relationship? Do they yell at their kids, or even do they yell at all? Are they courteous to store clerks? Good to their friends? Do they have meltdowns too? Would they be kind to me if they knew me under different circumstances?

Like us all, counsellors have moods, fatigue, stress, memories, histories and a human range of emotions. Counsellors may “relax” outside of sessions and be less disciplined in their behaviour, or for other therapists, there may not be much change. Because counsellors are subject to any kind of life conditions, their responses are equally human. But what is expressed by the counsellor in session may be different from the counsellor’s private life, and this discrepancy may or may not be a concern.

While most counselling clients may seek a counsellor that’s consistent in their work and private lives, too much honesty  could veer into too much counsellor disclosure with the risk of the counselling session becoming about the counsellor and not about the client! Any self-disclosure by the counsellor should be focused, limited and solely for the benefit of the client.

Do Counsellors Walk the Talk?

This is a great question. It’s perhaps a cop out, but I’ll say that it really depends on the counsellor! Counsellors are a diverse bunch!

I have a personal philosophy of not teaching any coping skills or therapy techniques that I have not at least tried in my personal life, yet sometimes counsellors have a hard time using the techniques that they know benefit their clients. It can be hard for anyone to admit they have problems, and for counsellors it can be particularly difficult, given the social stigma around mental health issues, not to mention the myth that counsellors should not have problems; seeking help can be particularly hard.

There are many therapists, though, that are thrilled to learn and use new psychological strategies. Many therapists have a meditation or mindfulness practice, have physical activity as part of their lives, love to laugh, seek quality relationships with others and have activities that nourish their wellbeing.

Counsellors may meet with a counsellor or clinical supervisor to discuss such strategies or do so more informally by engaging with friends, family or community activities in meaningful ways.

Can Counsellors Relate?

Often times clients will seek help from counsellors who have experience in the area or areas they’re seeking help for. What clients may not know is that counsellors are often drawn to help with issues that they’ve had personal experience with; they may or may not be open about this.

Of course, this is not always the case, but it can be a great relief to know that your counsellor “gets it,”—has lived experience in the area, even if it isn’t an exact match with your experience.

Counsellors who have chosen to share may have written about their experiences on their website, or communicated through other means, however this should not be confused with overdisclosure—i.e. counsellors oversharing their experience or telling clients about their problems. Why? Because the latter problem has more to do with the counsellor seeking something from the client: sympathy, reassurance, validation or a desire to unburden, for example, whereas in the first situation, such expectations of the client are not a factor.

For some of us, we may feel uncomfortable knowing if our counsellor has had problems, even if we know that they’ve worked (or are working) through them. Such knowledge may feel distracting to our counselling process or bring up feelings of awkwardness when discussing particular issues. Additionally, we may have ideas that counsellors should be the epitome of emotional health and wellbeing. 

Most certainly, it reasonable to hope that counsellors have had personal experience in counselling, are actively working on whatever issues are arising and that personal problems are not interfering the therapy that they are providing. Some counsellors may even choose not to work in particular areas because they are too triggering or unresolved.

Are Counsellors Just Like Us?

Yes, in the sense that counsellors are daughters, sons, spouses, single people, parents, child-free, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, friends, neighbours, citizens and more. Just like everyone else, there is a range of life experiences within these roles and a range of emotions too: joy, struggle, loss, triumph, to name a few.

it is important to recognize that there is a power differential in the therapy relationship and that codes of ethics and professional boundaries exist to protect clientsand fundamentally we all share in our membership in the human race. Once the safety of the therapeutic relationship has been established (ie therapy boundaries are in place), the human side of things has always been a key factor for me in selecting a counsellor. Business suits, glances down noses, excessive note taking, stiff (or no) handshakes, and therapy chairs far, far apart from each other in the counselling office have never been my thing. But for others, that distance might be comforting. I don’t judge.

Ultimately it’s important to self-reflect and ask yourself what you are seeking in the counselling relationship and to identify the qualities and life experiences of the counsellor that resonate best for you.