New to Counselling?
Are you new to this counselling thing? Are you contemplating giving it a try? Do you need to go to counselling? Or just curious as to what the fuss is all about?
Well, here’s my attempt at giving you a little glimpse into the beauty of this phenomenon that is growing in its cultural acceptance and perhaps this can help you figure out whether signing up for counselling is the next right move for you. I speak as a fellow human who has attended counselling and as a therapist who has sat opposite to many who have courageously sought out help through the medium of therapy.
Here are some stats to gain a wider picture:
- Statista conducted a survey of 1,650 people ranging from 18 years and older in 2020 via telephone interview. They asked the respondents, “in the past 12 months, have you received any counseling or treatment for your mental health?” 43.7% of respondents from British Columbia said “yes.” New Brunswick wins (or loses depending on how you look at it…) at 60.1% of respondents responding with “yes.” Manitoba was the lowest at 27.7%.
- Another study found that between 2019 and 2021 the percentage of adults who had received mental health treatment in the past 12 months grew from 19.2% to 21.6% (Terlizzi & Schiller, 2022).
- Statistics Canada found that in 2018 17.8% of Canadians aged 12 and older reported needing some help with their mental health. This is around 5.3 million people. That’s a lot of people! Out of that 5.3 million, 43.8% reported that their needs were either not met (they did not go to therapy) or were partially met (they went to therapy but it was not enough).
What do these three sources tell us?
Simply put, therapy is being accessed more and more. Perhaps, we are catching on to the fact that our mental health is worth investing in. It really is. Gone are the days when therapy was reserved for those that we lazily labeled (or diagnosed) with words like “crazy” or “problematic.”
5.3 million Canadians acknowledged the need for assistance with their mental wellbeing.
Deeper than just being accessed more, these studies are perhaps a helpful reminder that you are not alone, not part of a small fringe group, but… dare I say… human. Not yet got this “life” thing figured out. Normal? I think so.
What Does Therapy Look Like?
So, if you’re new to this or not yet bought into it, give me a moment to paint a picture of what it looks like:
You arrive in a cozy office, sit in the waiting room, another fellow human – your counsellor – will arrive and call your name, together you’ll enter a room with a couch and perhaps a few chairs. You sit down. And then…
This is what you may see on the outside but so much is happening internally.
You are setting out on a grand adventure.
You are escaping the noise and bustle of every-day life.
You are marching out into battle.
You are sitting by a warm fire on a stormy winter evening.
You are resolving unfinished business.
You are tending a wound that no-one around you sees.
You are aspiring and hoping for who you could become.
You are settling into who you are, becoming more at home in your own skin.
If you break your arm, you go to a doctor. This doctor will first assess your injury and then set you off on a path of healing and recovery – aligning your arm, bracing it, and advising you on what activities may or may not be achievable in light of your wound.
In a similar way, you may have experienced various psychological/relational/emotional challenges – a huge setback in your work life and left feeling fragile, recurring conflict in your most intimate relationships, abuse from people that were supposed to be your protectors – and the question remains: where do I go to sort through/respond/heal these challenges?
The added challenge of mental health is its invisible quality, which leaves us vulnerable to the pushback: “is this just in my head? Can I just push through and deal with this?” A broken arm just seems so simple and obvious. However, mental pain and suffering left unattended can fester in similar ways than an untreated wound. Though, it may come out in angry outbursts, tension in your shoulders (perhaps its not so invisible…), the inability to know what you feel, a low sense of self-worth, or intrusive thoughts that plague you every time you slow down.
This is where counselling becomes useful in attending to your mental well-being. It is true that humans are resilient and often, even after experiencing traumatic life events, people bounce back with courage and vitality. And yet, counselling is a protected space to address and tend to our relational, emotional, personal challenges.
How does counselling accomplish change?
At very least it accomplishes this through undoing our unbearable aloneness. Dr. Diana Fosha passionately declares that our relational, emotional, personal challenges largely stem from “being alone in the face of overwhelming emotion” (Fosha, 2000). Thus, therapy, at its best, works to undo aloneness.
Judith Herman, the legendary trauma therapist, writes that “the fundamental premise of the psychotherapeutic work is a belief in the restorative power of truth-telling” (Herman, 2015, p.181). In the presence of another human, can you share honestly how you are doing? Can you express, in detail and with clarity, the truth of your being? As you dive into the biggest challenges that seem to plague your life through this act of “truth-telling”, you are met with wise attentiveness and deep compassion.
Bessel Van Der Kolk, the medical director of the Trauma Center in Brookline, Massachusetts, says “being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives” (Van der Kolk, 2015, p. 81).
A Safe Relationship
Do you have relationships marked by trust, safety, honesty? How can you tell?
Bessell highlights the importance of each of us being heard and seen by another person in our lives. We need to be held in someone else’s mind and heart. He writes, “no doctor can write a prescription for friendship and love; these are complex and hard-earned capacities” (Van der Kolk, 2015, p. 81).
Do you feel a desire to be met with this sort of attentiveness and care? Does it feel too good to be true? Too simple? Fair responses. A helpful question to explore is what the costs are for not receiving this hard-earned capacities?
I know I need them. And as I step into vulnerability—this act of receiving and trusting—I find myself walking lighter, thinking with greater clarity regarding my relationships and problems, and feeling more at home in my body and in this world. Perhaps you could call it feeling mentally healthy.
I encourage you to find relationships that are characterized by these qualities. Whether or not they are counsellors. It will change your life. It’s changed my life.
Here at Alongside You, these quotes inspire our work; We offer award-winning counselling services that are shot through with these qualities: a safe context to be seen, held in the mind of another, and this “hard-earned” love that Bessell speaks about. If you wish to learn more, contact us to see how we can help.
Elflein, J. (2022, August 31). Adults who received past-year Mental Health Counseling Canada 2020. Statista. Retrieved from, https://www.statista.com/statistics/1328941/adults-who-received-past-year-mental-health-counseling-canada-by-province/
Facts and figures. Fraser. (n.d.). Retrieved from, https://vancouver-fraser.cmha.bc.ca/impact/influencing-policy/facts-and-figures/#:~:text=Between%2019.6%25%20and%2026.2%25%20of,a%20mental%20illness%20each%20year.
Fosha, D. (2000). The transforming power of affect: A model for Accelerated Change. Basic Books.
Herman, J. L. (2015). Trauma and recovery. Basic Books.
Statistics Canada. (2019, October 7). Mental health care needs, 2018. Health Fact Sheets. Retrieved from, https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/82-625-x/2019001/article/00011-eng.htm
Terlizzi, E. P., & Schiller, J. S. (2022). Mental health treatment among adults aged 18-44: United States, 2019-2021. US Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics.
Van der Kolk, B. A. (2015). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Penguin Books.
Parenting your Chronically-Ill Young Adult
Becoming an adult is a challenge these days. It’s even more challenging if you have chronic physical or mental illness, pain and/or disability. And it is equally challenging when parenting one of those kiddos. Here are some suggestions about what tends to work, and what tends not to work – although, of course, every child is different, and every parent-child relationship is different – so, take these as suggestions only and use what works for you.
By separation anxiety, I mean yours! It is normal for young adults to become more and more autonomous as they separate from their family of upbringing and learn to stand on their own feet. This can be very anxiety-provoking when you are acutely aware of their struggles. Maybe you know that they have extreme anxiety around dealing with paperwork or making telephone calls. You may wonder, “how are they going to manage in their own place?” But hovering and fussing around isn’t helping them or you. Take a breath, do a guided meditation, and learn to be more patient than you ever thought possible.
If you have a young adult who sometimes goes ‘quiet’ and you have concerns about self-harm, it can be a good idea to have the name and number of a partner, friend or coworker who you can contact to check on how they’re doing. However, this must only be on rare occasions. Don’t use them as a way to deal with your anxieties.
They’re Still Here!
If your young adult is still living at home because of their health, and you are both happy about that, then there is no problem. If either of you are less than enthusiastic about it, then it’s time to give them their own space as much as possible, set boundaries and ground rules that work for everyone, and negotiate for shared time rather than assuming that they want to be around you 24/7. It may also be time for them to assume some of the household duties (to the extent that their health allows) so that they are building transferrable skills, and learning that being an adult comes with responsibilities.
Mind Your Own Business!
Privacy is something which everyone deserves. Our children get less privacy when they are young because that is tempered by the need to have some level of control over their lives to ensure that they are healthy and safe. However, adults have the right to privacy, period. Your kid’s computer, cellphone, finances, diary … all off-limits. If you have concerns, talk to them – it’s the grown-up thing to do and they should be able to expect you to model what being an adult means. They don’t need your permission to go out, but they may need your help with transportation. If you’re willing to do that, you’ll meet their friends and be part of their life way more than if they get grilled every time they leave the house.
What They Need versus What You Want to Do
Often we think we really know our kids and their needs – and we probably do, more than anyone in the world … except them. If we insist on helping the way we want instead of what they need, then we prevent them from growing. For example, if they tell you that they can handle taking the bus to work this week, and don’t need a lift – you may not be sure they can do it. But what’s the worst that can happen? They try it once and then need assistance. But what’s the best that can happen? Maybe they make progress and conquer a new skill! Don’t second guess them. Yes, it’s hard watching them struggle a bit. But that, as the kids say, is a you problem. Don’t make it theirs.
Work together with your kids to make contingency plans that help keep their lives on-track. If they take prescriptions, and you know they have difficulty filling them – keep a few days’ supply so that they won’t ever run out completely. If they’re travelling, and you worry that their ADHD will cause them to lose their passport – take a scanned copy backed up to the Cloud and make sure you both have a photo of it on your phones. There are creative solutions to most problems. Oh, and the occasional home-made mac and cheese never hurts, either!
Parenting Without Judgement!
Make parenting a no-judgement zone. If they get into trouble, they won’t ask for help if they know they are going to hear ‘I told you so’. Minimize issues and let them know that adult life is hard, but manageable, and most things can be fixed. Be ready to help when it’s needed, and be prepared to feel a touch neglected when they’re having a good spell and don’t really need you as much! And quit judging yourself, too. You’re navigating one of the most difficult tightrope walks of all – being there for a child who wants to be independent but who can’t quite manage it yet. You aren’t always going to get it right, and neither are they. Don’t beat yourself up about it. The best thing you can do for your kid is be there for them when they need you to be, and love them, always.
If you find that you are struggling with parenting, don’t be afraid to seek help. It can be a relief to realize that many other people struggle with the same issues. I know it’s hard, but try to let other people in. It can be easy to assume that you are the only one who can help your kid. But even if that’s so, maybe other people can help YOU. Maybe your partner can do the laundry or the supermarket run this week. Don’t get so blinkered that you exhaust yourself completely, because then you won’t be able to help your kid. I am not suggesting that you always put yourself first – no parent of a chronically-ill child I have ever met is able to do that. But I am suggesting that you don’t put yourself last.
Look How Far They’ve Come
It can be hard, when you have a kiddo with chronic health issues, to get bogged down in doctor visits, prescriptions, rough nights, trips to the ER, sensory overloads, etc, etc. But looking back a couple of years usually lets us see the progress which has been made. Maybe things don’t look like you expected them to. But maybe your journey, and your young adult’s, will end up being more meaningful than you ever expected. Celebrate the wins!
We’d love to hear what works for you and your young adult. And if you could use support in your parenting journey, contact us to see how we can help.
As parents, we try to support and guide our children in every way possible. Unfortunately, what parents tend to think is supportive can sometimes emanate significant amounts of pressure. Parents often want their child to be the best and inherit the mindset that their child will be the next Wayne Gretzky. When a sports parent thinks this way, it can affect their parent-child relationship. As an athlete, you want your parents to be proud and express their validation towards you. If a child feels like their sports parents aren’t proud, their words and actions are frequently perceived with pressure. This is why it is crucial to understand what may hurt your child instead of what may benefit your child’s involvement in sports.
Three things that hurt your child’s confidence
1. Expressing appraisal ONLY when they are doing well
It is essential that you are constantly being supportive no matter the outcome of your child’s performance. Regardless of whether they make a good play or make a mistake, your support should remain constant. Giving your child support no matter the circumstances will show them that you are proud of them despite the outcome. When they look over at you and see you cheering for them, it displays direct approval and encouragement. What if they look over and see you are unhappy or distracted by your phone? It may make them feel like you are disappointed in them. You may not think that your child notices your presence in the stands, but really, they are.
The correct approach would be to exude positive energy and cheering, even when nothing is happening. Do not make your supportive habits dependent on your child’s performance.
2. Telling your child how they could have done better on the car ride home
The car ride home is always a challenging situation. As an athlete who pressured themselves, I was already upset with myself if I had a bad performance. I definitely didn’t need to hear my parents say to me, “you should have done this.” Or “what happened on that one play where you made a mistake?” It would make me even more disappointed in myself than I already was. As sports parents, it is crucial to support and encourage your child without interfering. It is essential to focus on the positive attributes of their game instead of constantly reminding your child of what they did wrong.
3. Stop delivering clichés
Parents often believe that speaking in clichés is suitable for their child, but it does the opposite for kids. For example, if your child is getting worked up in games because of a mistake they made, it probably is best to avoid making certain remarks. Avoid statements such as “stop overthinking’ or “when you are out there, you have to be focused.” Most likely, the child is already trying to accomplish these things. Still, it’s not something that will immediately help them after you tell them to. Telling your child these clichés can develop into pressurization. It might make them believe that they are not doing a good job. Instead of saying these clichés, it would be more beneficial to say something like, “nice effort, you will get the next one!”
Here are some ways you as a sports parent can support your child when playing sports.
1. Provide emotional support
No matter the outcome of your child’s performance, it is vital to prioritize and provide unconditional love. Whether it is giving your child a hug or a high five after the game or telling them how proud of them you are, a little goes a long way. This is crucial after a game where the player may feel like they had a bad performance. Hearing how proud their parent is will make your child feel better. This will give your child the affirmation that being proud of them is not wholly dependent on their play.
2. Emphasize the importance of effort over outcome
Often, we think of the end result as the ultimate achievement instead of understanding the progress made. There is a lot of hard work that has to be done to reach an end result. If children constantly think about the outcome instead of thinking in the moment, it can become detrimental to their performance. When you put too much emphasis on a final product or winning, it can cause the child to feel pressure or anxiety because of you. This is why it’s more productive for a sports parent to focus more on the child’s efforts and relate their efforts to success. For example, after a game, tell your child, “I really liked how you hustled in and out of the dugout” or “you made a great effort on that one play. ”
3. Encourage independence
It is crucial for you as a sports parent to be involved in your child’s sports. Still, it is also important that your child is allowed to pursue their own independence. It’s okay for you to have boundaries and set rules. Still, when your child is involved in sports, it is beneficial for your child to gain independence within these boundaries you set. This is how your child learns to hold themselves accountable and grow in their independence. For example, you may tell your child that “you must always be prepared for practices.” Instead, tell your child, “I will be home to drive you to your game, but you must be ready to go when I get home.” This compels your child to get themselves prepared for their practice or game without your assistance. Altering how you give your child direction may fuel the desire for them to embrace independence.
4. Communicate and share goals
Open communication is vital when guiding your child through sports. Developing the habit of solid communication between you and your child will provide an understanding of how you can better support your child. This will also allow the child to express what they want from you as a sports parent. Ensure you are regularly checking in with your child by asking them how they are doing with their sports. Allow your child to make goals for themselves instead of you making them for them. This encourages children to be independent and control what they want out of the sports they play.
5. Behave in a way that your children want you to before, during, and after a game/practice
Strong communication between you and your child will help strengthen your relationship. This allows your child to express what they want from you before, during, and after a game. Every child is different, so it is important to understand the likes and dislikes of your child and how you can better support them through that. For example, your child may be nervous before a game and want your help with relaxing. During a game, your child may not like it when you approach the dugout and tell them something they need to do. Because of this action, your child may not want to talk about the game or express openness regarding the game’s events.
If you need help guiding your child through sports in a supportive way, book an appointment today with us at Alongside You. We can help you strive to have a strong relationship with your child!
I remember my first counselling session. I was pretty freaked out. I didn’t really want to be there. I didn’t know what to expect. I think that last part was what made the situation difficult – I’d never been before, I didn’t know anyone who had seen a counsellor before, so I was completely lost and anxious about it.
I saw a new client yesterday and this reminded me of my own first experience seeing a counsellor. This client had never been to counselling, had no idea what to expect, and I could see that there was definitely some anxiety about the whole situation.
While every counsellor will be different in their approach, I thought I’d write an article about what to expect and how to make your first session as successful as possible when you meet with your Registered Clinical Counsellor for the first time.
Here at Alongside You, your first interaction will be with our front desk staff who will explain much of the administrative details that you’ll need to know, give you recommendations on which of our counsellors might be the best fit, and help to book your first session. After that, they will send you our online intake form to fill out prior to your appointment. This helps us take care of the necessary paperwork ahead of time, and also helps our counsellors get an idea of what you’re coming in for and some details before you arrive.
When you arrive, you’ll enter the waiting room to wait for your appointment. We have a self-serve waiting room, so please feel free to help yourself to water, coffee, or tea and take a seat. We want you to be as comfortable as possible! If you have any questions before your appointment and it’s during our reception hours, feel free to wander toward the back and speak with our office staff, they’ll be happy to speak to you.
Once your appointment time arrives, your counsellor will come greet you in the waiting room, and invariably, probably offer you another drink. Feel free to get a refill, they’re free! Now it’s time for the main event. Your first appointment with a Registered Clinical Counsellor.
Each counsellor will have a bit of a different interview process to start out your work together, but remember, they need to get to know you and also, you need to get to know them for the relationship to work. The first appointment will be about building the relationship and getting to know each other.
Here are some areas that I usually ask clients about at our first session to get to know them and how I might be of help. Again, every counsellor will be different but a lot of these questions are fairly common to ask new clients.
Things A Counsellor Might Ask You At The First Appointment
Personal and Family History
I like to know what life was like growing up, and how clients got to where they are today. This can be a short or lengthy discussion. As a marriage and family therapist by training, I believe that our personal and family history have a strong influence on our development and I like to know how people came to be where they are now. I usually suggest that clients tell me their story – however, they want to tell it – in as much or a little detail as they feel comfortable.
Mental and Physical Health History
I like to know the history of a client’s mental and physical health. What has your health been like throughout their life? Do you deal with any chronic mental or physical health conditions? Does anyone else in your family deal with any of these conditions?
Another question I often ask is, “When is the last time you saw your family doctor? When is the last time you got a checkup and bloodwork done?” This may sound overly-medical for a counsellor to be asking, but it’s important. If you’re coming in because you’re feeling depressed, anxious, or otherwise, I want to make sure that there isn’t a physiological problem at the root of your symptoms. There are many physiological issues that have symptoms that can masquerade as psychological or psychiatric issues. If you are dehydrated, have a thyroid imbalance, your blood sugar is off, iron is low, etc., these can all cause symptoms that look like a mental health issue. The last thing I want for you is to treat something as psychological if there’s a physiological cause.
Now, these areas not mutually exclusive conditions either. You may have a physiological issue and also be struggling with a psychological issue. We want to cover all of our bases.
What Brought You To Counselling
This may seem like an obvious question, but it’s also an important one. We all struggle with various things in life, it’s the joy of being human. I want to know what it is that brought you in today, what are the challenges, how did they start, and my favourite question, “Why now?” What made you decide to come get some help now, particularly if this has been an ongoing thing for a while. This question is important because it clarifies what is the key issue that you are experiencing, and what your motivation level is, and what is specifically motivating you to get help now.
How To Measure Success
I often ask clients, “If this works, what will be different?” I want to know what your goals are and how they’ll gauge if counselling is a success. This both handles the goal setting, and how to find out if the counselling process working. My goals and metrics may not be what my client is going to use. I want to know what your gauge is. This doesn’t mean I don’t have my own tools and metrics for the process (I do), but it gives us a common language to monitor the relationship and the process on an ongoing basis. It helps us answer the question I ask pretty regularly with clients, “How’s this going for you? Is this helpful?”
What Do I Need To Know About You For This To Work
We are all special little snowflakes. We have our idiosyncrasies, oddities, preferences, hot button issues, and more. I’m no different. I want to know what is going to help you in the process, help us build the relationship, and help you feel safe and supported while trying to avoid things that do the opposite. Some people need a very gentle approach, others need a straight shooter. Some are very wary of a particular gender because of past experiences, others aren’t. I want to know these things so I can be the best help I can be for you.
I remember my first appointment with my current counsellor about 7 years ago. As you might imagine, I can be picky about my counsellors, and I’m also pretty headstrong and assertive. I know what I need in a counsellor. So, I sat down in his office and said, “Here’s what you need to know about me if this is going to work. I need someone who isn’t afraid to call me out on my crap. I need that, and I respond well to it. If you can do that we’ll get on famously, and if you can’t, no harm or foul, I’ll give you your money for today and be on my way.” I know myself and know that if I’m matched up with a counsellor who is softer and non-confrontational, I’ll be able to get away with things and manipulate the conversation easily and this won’t help me. I need accountability.
Things To Know About Counselling As A Client
As a Registered Clinical Counsellor, I want your experience to be as positive and helpful as possible and I know I can speak for the whole team here at Alongside You on this one. It’s important to know, however, that counselling is a team effort. Counsellors aren’t magicians with a magic wand that can fix all that ails you. The process works through the development of a safe therapeutic relationship and a joint effort to move forward. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you start your counselling journey.
Your Counsellor Cannot Read Your Mind
Some of you who have been to counselling before may laugh at this, and I know that I’ve had clients who were relatively convinced I had this magical power based on some of my interactions with them. We have intuition, not mind-reading powers. What this means is, it takes two active participants in a counselling session to get to where we’re trying to go. If you’re not an active participant, the process is very difficult if not impossible.
Being Open and Honest Are Important
We know this is a big ask of you. It’s not easy to sit down with a stranger and talk about the difficult parts of life. The counselling process needs this, however. If we can’t be open with each other, we can’t work together and create a safe space to wrestle with life. It’s not all-or-nothing, however. It takes time, and you don’t have to be an open book from the first minute. Build the relationship, and share as you do so. We’re in this together.
Try To Know What It Is You Want From The Session
This is sometimes a difficult one. I know that I often struggle to know what I want out of a session with my counsellor, but part of that is because I have a standing appointment that I go to every month regardless of how I am feeling that day because that’s what works best for me. Some of the questions I’ve outlined above can also be used on an ongoing basis to figure out goals and focus points, but it’s always helpful when clients know what they want to focus on in the session. It helps keep the process on track.
Ask The Counsellor Questions
Sometimes clients are surprised when I turn the tables and ask them if they have questions for me! As I mentioned above, counselling is a two-person endeavour and process. If I need to get to know you, it only stands to reason that you should get to know me as well. Ask away! The fit between a counsellor and client is important and getting to know each other helps us figure out if we’re the right fit. I always encourage clients to ask whatever questions they want, with the caveat that I may choose to decline to answer questions of a personal nature if they go beyond what I choose to reveal to clients about myself or my personal life. Every counsellor is different in this area but feels free to ask. You may want to ask about experience, qualifications, approach, personality, or things like hobbies, etc. It’s up to you and your counsellor to navigate how best to get to know one another.
Give The Counsellor Feedback
I always tell my clients, and then remind them periodically, that I need their feedback. Going back to my inability to read minds, I need feedback to know if we’re on the right track, if I’m focusing on the right things, and if things are helpful. Sometimes clients are afraid to tell the counsellor if they feel the process isn’t going in the direction they want or isn’t working. I absolutely want to know these things. I’d rather find out that something is off than continue believing all is well only to find out after the fact that it wasn’t helpful. I also want to know what is working so we can do more of that!
Counselling Is A Journey
I know that going to see a Registered Clinical Counsellor for the first time can be anxiety-provoking. I promise it’s not as scary, and we’re not as weird as you might think. We’re just regular people too, who have some training and experience to help you through some of life’s challenges. If we keep some of the above in mind and are open with each other, we can find a path through the challenges and help you thrive!
Feel free to give us a call or send us an email through our contact form if you have any more questions. We’re happy to answer them! Have you been thinking about taking the first step in seeing a counsellor? There’s no time like the present – take the first step, that’s the hardest part. It gets easier from there.
I recently attended the Recovery Capital Conference of Canada 2018 with our associate, Richard Somerset. This is the second year we’ve gone to the conference, and each year I leave, reminded of one thing: the importance of hope. It’s wonderful to hear the research, discuss different topics, see old friends; but, what I enjoy most are the stories from clinicians and people from the recovery community alike – stories of recovery, rejuvenation, and hope.
The role of counselling in recovery is an interesting one. I remember my earlier days working on the downtown east side with youth living on the street and suffice it to say, my “office” was pretty different back then. Most of my work involved a trip to Tim Horton’s, or sitting in a local park, or even sitting on the ground in various alleys. Most of my work back then seemed less “clinical” if you will – you might even call it counselling guidance.
The reality was, as it still often is, that there was precious little I could do to make things better. Some of the stories I heard from these youth were devastating, horrific even, and it didn’t stop. I could help find them a place to stay at Covenant House, my employer at the time. I could talk to them about job opportunities, addiction treatment options, mental health resources. What I couldn’t do is change their past, or sometimes, their present and future.
So, what then? What good is counselling guidance? How does it instill hope in a life where there doesn’t seem to be any?
What I found in the alleys of the downtown east side of Vancouver, and what I continue to find in my nice, cushy office in the suburbs, is that most of my role in the lives of others is as a guide – helping people find their way back to seeing hope in themselves. Hope in who they are. Hope in what they could become. Even if some of the circumstances don’t change.
This is the power of empathy and connection. While our current circumstances are important, I find that they have very little to do with hope. We can be in the worst of times and be hopeful, and we can be in the best of times and find it meaningless. This is where the guidance fits in.
Counselling guidance, in this case, takes the form of slowly helping clients entertain the idea that hope resides in self and others, and not in the situation. Hope resides in the idea that you are still, at your core, worthy of love and that life can be different. In the words of Marsha Linehan, life can be worth living again.
How, then, can we start finding hope, and even joy in the midst of emotional and/or situational turmoil? How can counselling help this process along? Here are three things to keep in mind in terms of counselling and hope:
- You are not your addiction, your depression, your borderline personality disorder, or otherwise. These are all things that love to tell you otherwise, preying on the negative thought processes and painful emotions that may be running through heart, mind, and soul.
- There is always hope. You may not see it right now, and you may think that what you’ve done, what you’re battling, or what you anticipate are too much for hope to conquer. What I can tell you is that in all of my experience, I’ve never seen these things evidenced in truth. There are no hopeless causes, hopeless battles, or hopeless futures if we continue to hold on.
- You may not be in a place where you can hold hope for yourself. You may need someone to hold if for you. This is where a counsellor comes in. Our job, in my view, is to hold hope for those that can’t hold it for themselves. I know I’ve been there. I consider it an honour to be able to hold hope for others.
If you see yourself in any of the above, I would encourage you to give counselling a try. Sometimes counselling is a very specific clinical intervention. Sometimes, however, it’s guidance, and guidance toward the possibility of hope.
If we have hope, we have a chance.
When I sat down to write this, the first thing that came to mind was a poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, titled, “How Do I Love Thee? (Sonnet 43).” The opening line says, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways,” and continues to explain in great detail, all the different ways the subject loves the other. This is how I feel about counselling and its importance – there is no simple way to summarize why counselling is important because, in my opinion, the importance of it is endless in usefulness and application. So, I’ll offer three reasons counselling is important to start the conversation off.
Reason #1: Safety
Many of us have wonderful families, friends, and colleagues. But, how often do we feel completely safe discussing our innermost difficulties, the things we’re struggling with, the things that we’re afraid of, or perhaps the things we’re ashamed of? The reasons people come to counselling are many, whether it’s anxiety, depression, addiction, relationships, or otherwise, sometimes we just can’t bring ourselves to talk about these things with the people we have in our inner circle.
This is one reason counselling is important – a place of safety. By coming and entering the counselling room, you are entering into a space that was set up specifically to provide safety; the ambiance of the room, the highly trained professionals ready to engage in dialogue, the confidentiality provided by the interaction, and more. If we are to wrestle with our deepest longings, we need to feel safe and this what counselling provides.
Reason #2: Empathy
Empathy is key to our wellbeing and our functioning. In order to feel safe and feel connected to others, we need empathy. This is different than sympathy, which I’ve covered in previous articles because sympathy drives connection away. Empathy is healing, change making, and supports the re-wiring of our brains.
Empathy helps us feel known, understood, and validated; many times, this is what is missing in our personal lives. Sometimes this is because we are not surrounded by people who are capable, or willing to provide this for us; other times, it’s because we’re not in a place personally where we’re able to open ourselves to this possibility and this is where the skill of the counsellor comes in. Through counselling, we can experience empathy in a 1:1 relationship with the counsellor, evaluate our relationships, and if there are things preventing us from accepting empathy from others, work through these things will a skilled professional.
Reason #3: Guidance
When I went through my clinical training, one thing that was impressed upon us is that we’re not here to give advice. While I don’t disagree that this is not our primary function, I do disagree that we never do this. Sometimes counsellors are there to give advice. Depending on the client’s cultural background, they may actually be quite frustrated by not getting advice at times. What a counsellor is more apt to do on a regular basis, however, is to give guidance. Sometimes it’s guidance on a specific issue (i.e. school counselling, career counselling), and sometimes the guidance is in the form of a sounding board, offering alternatives to how the client is thinking about different issues.
Sometimes the guidance is more pointed – in my work I often see clients who have been through the various mental health systems without success and my clinical expertise and knowledge of the system is helpful in navigating next steps in looking for treatment and recovery.
As I mentioned at the beginning, this is just scratching the surface of why counselling is important, but I hope it’s a good introduction for you. In future articles, we’ll explore in specific detail how counselling is important for specific issues. If you have any questions about this, feel free to send us a message through the contact form and we’ll be happy to answer your question in a future article.