People who have never had counselling before sometimes ask...

'I've got really good friends and/or I get on really well with my family. 
Isn't talking things over with them just the same as being in therapy?'

Counselling is not a substitute for, or a rival to, sharing things with friends or family.
They are two different relationships entirely. 

These are some of the differences...

  • A counselling relationship focuses on you and is about you. You and your counsellor meet together for the sole purpose of ethically working together to improve your current situation. With friends and family you share and exchange things together for lots of reasons.  At times you may have to 'take care of' them and their needs whilst trying to work on your own problems.  This does not happen in a counselling relationship.
  • Friends and family may be good listeners and they may be able to give good advice.  But such advice which, though well meaning, may be right for them, but not for you.   Or, it might be right for you in some cases, but not for what you have to handle right now.  Counselling is not about giving advice.
  • There may be things about yourself that friends and family feel reluctant to speak to you about.  This means at times, unknown to you, you may be holding yourself back.  A trained counsellor will work with you sensitively and respectfully to allow you to look at yourself in ways which will help you to grow.  At times your friends or family may not feel able or willing to do this for fear of upsetting you, losing you or annoying you, however close you are to them.
  • You might know what the answer is, so you don't want friends and family solving a problem for you.  You may just want someone else to hear what is going on inside your head, so you can just 'air your thoughts and feelings' and look at things at your own pace with another adult.  A counselling session is a time where you can do just that, still be in charge of working out what is best for you, share your thoughts and feelings with someone who recognises that you know what is best for you and will help you to explore your own way of solving things at a pace which is right for you. Friends and family may feel puzzled that you seem to be telling them about a problem, but don't seem willing to take their help to solve it or just seem to want to keep going over it. This can add pressure to the friendship or family relationship.  In a counselling relationship, the counsellor does not tell you what to do.
  • There may be things about you or your past which are at the root of why you feel the way you do right now which you or your family/friends may not realise. A trained counsellor will usually be able to work with you to explore things about yourself in a respectful and sensitive way that helps you grow. This could help you to see patterns that you or your family might not have considered before.
  • Perhaps there may be things about yourself or your past that are at the root of why you feel the way you do now and you may not wish to share this with friends or family.
  • Sometimes your family or friends may be used to you behaving, thinking or feeling a particular way and may not know how to respond when you want things to be different.
  • If your friends and family are used to you behaving in a particular way (say by always appearing 'in control' or 'good in a crisis' or 'the quiet one' or 'the happy one who just gets on with it') and now something happens which turns your world upside down, you may feel you have to carry on as if nothing significant has occurred.  In fact, whatever has happened has really affected you.  Therefore you may start to feel trapped into acting as if you are not bothered.  But instead you want to share things, think and feel whatever you think and feel at your own pace with another adult and come to your own conclusions without the listener commenting 'This is not like you!' or 'You're thinking too much about it'. In a counselling relationship, you share your thoughts, feelings and look at problems with another adult who does not expect you to react as you have always done.  This can give you freedom to work things through at your own pace and solve problems differently, if you want to.
  • Sometimes friends or family may have reactions which are right for them, but not for you.  For example, they may feel shocked at what has happened.  But you might feel scared or numb or sad or angry. You might feel unable to show your own feelings, because of their initial response.  So you may end up going along with their reaction, but then afterwards are still left with whatever it is that is bothering you.  So their reaction seems to become more important than your own, even though you get on well together.  In counselling, although your counsellor may have emotional responses to whatever it is you tell them, the focus is on you.  You don't have to 'take care of their emotions' or 'fit in' with your counsellor's emotions in order not to worry them too much.
  • If family or friends do give you advice and you don't follow it, this can set up a cycle whereby you feel you can't go on talking about whatever it is, because they have already told you what they think.  You may now feel pressured into either taking their advice when it is not right for you; or feel now that you can't bring the subject up too often because they will wonder why you have not solved it by taking their advice.  This can add to your own worries, because now you have the extra dimension of being careful not to 'go on' too much to other people, in case it leads to an argument (along the lines of .... 'Why are you telling me again, when I told you last week that what needs to happen is ... ?'); or the topic seems to be 'boring' you or them.  Because counselling is not about the counsellor giving you advice, this type of scenario would not occur.
  • When you have worked through whatever it is you want to work through with a counsellor, the relationship comes to an end and you no longer meet. With friends and family, sometimes you can find yourself being reminded of a time when things were not so good, even though you have now moved on.

Sharing problems and issues with friends and family can be very helpful at times.
Counselling is not a substitute or a rival to sharing things with friends or family;
they are two different relationships entirely.

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© Carole Gallagher 2012, 2013