Oh my gosh, you have no idea how eager counsellors and psychotherapists are to shed the mystique around what we do behind closed doors!
If nothing else, because it's good for business. All this secrecy and societal stigma are not good for our business model!
But, perhaps, we only have ourselves to blame.
In the counselling world, it’s all very much about secrecy – ensuring our clients' confidentiality, the negativity surrounding counsellors’ disclosure of personal information and how we’re notoriously bad at social media.
Unlike, say life coaches, who cannot shut up long enough to hear anything but their own voice (this is a gross and unfair statement but it is also accurate for the likes of American self-help guru Anthony Robbins, motivational speaker Mel Robbins (not related) and the many self-trained relationships, anxiety, and various life coaches on TikTok and Instagram, so busy making reels I wonder when they have time to work with clients).
It’s a lot easier to find the ‘heart-breaking’ details of Tony Robbins’ tough childhood online – as documented by himself – than it is to find the details of Carl Roger’s personal life (founding father of the person-centred framework and one of the most influential psychotherapists in the world) (you can find details about his personal life but they’re not from him delivering this information on a stage, surrounded by thousands of people but rather uncovered by nosy biographers).
Tony Robbins doesn’t shy away from giving you advice and telling you how to live your life, nor share many stories about himself as well as share stories of the people he’s worked with. Indeed, he’s famous for his weekend intensives where any member of the audience can have their intimate details exposed at any minute.
This is the opposite of what goes on in counselling.
In counselling it’s all about you, your needs, your pace, your right to withhold or share information, about confidentiality and about the counsellor staying impartial, objective and neutral.
Why is that? Why are we so secretive?
What we do, say and share can impact the client's journey.
For example, if your counsellor tells you that she'll have to cancel a few sessions because of her cancer treatment, you may withhold information about fearing death or about the lump you’ve found. Or if your counsellor lets it slip that she can't have a child, you may not want to talk about how much you hate children and feel pressured into having them by your partner, or indeed of your infertility because you worry about upsetting your counsellor.
Whereas, in the coaching industry, your personal story is your selling point. The more pain and obstacles the coach has faced, the better! It's a motivational story of how YOU can overcome your stuff too and be a big, raging success, just like your overpriced coach.
They'll also flaunt their private pictures on social media to show you the life YOU could have if only you signed them up as your coach.
Now, there's a big difference between each counsellor/psychotherapist out there - huge! As well as coaches. Many of my dearest friends are quiet, private people, many without any social media platform, so I cannot account for all of them but safe to say, each to their own.
Some counsellors will find it hideously wrong for a client to know ANYTHING about their private life, like if they're married or have children. There are debates online, on counselling forums, whether you're allowed to tell your clients you're going on holiday or whether you should just tell them that you're closed. Are you allowed to tell them you're getting married, or will that disturb them too much, if they're dealing with a breakup?
No one agrees.
Some counsellors think it's wrong to portray any facial expressions during a session as to not give away any emotional state to a client and potentially influence them in some way or form or give them the wrong idea (I once winched at a client’s story. They thought the winch was because I was judging their poor choices, whereas, it was meant to display my deep empathy for their problems) and some counsellors find humour a big no-no. After all, you might be a 'people-pleaser' and if I laugh at one of your jokes, or show amusement on my face, you might start playing up to that to gain my approval and I will have provoked your people-pleasing tendencies instead of helping you overcome them.
Some counsellors won't say much, but expect you to do all the talking; some will give you homework; some will talk to you like a friend.
What goes on behind closed doors for each counsellor/psychotherapist or indeed coach out there, I cannot tell you, but I can tell you this:
For me, I want someone friendly and warm, someone who is qualified, someone with a few years of experience, someone who will show a bit of themselves to me, so I feel like I'm having a human-to-human connection. They'd need to be integrative in their approach (meaning, they don't just use one, rigid approach). They'd need to share some of my values in life which I'd try and figure out via their website or during an initial meeting.
When you come to see me, you can expect a joint, reflective conversation. I won't expect you to do all the talking, and I will assume you'd like to hear some of my ideas about the things you've said, but I will expect you to do most of the talking.
I'll be friendly, warm and approachable. Trust is essential for the relationship to work, so I'll do my best to ensure you that I'm a trustworthy person, in how I act, speak and via the confidentiality clause in my contract.
I'll respect you and make you feel understood and accepted in the room, but I will also challenge you when you talk or think in unhealthy ways.
I'll ask lots of personal questions and some of them will hit hard and deep.
I will support you and help guide you, but I'm not someone who will give you the answers or solutions. Why not? Because my ideas of a solution or answer, won't be yours, and I need to respect your needs, and I'll do that by helping you discover your own answers, needs and solutions
Often when we see a talk therapist, it's because we're feeling a bit lost and maybe a bit unsure about who we are and what direction we want to be going. This sense of inner confusion often stems from parents telling us how to live, teachers telling us how to be and think, peers pressuring us into doing certain things and so on. The last thing you need is to pay me to also tell you how to think, feel and behave! I'm here to help you find that out for yourself so you can gain confidence in your own voice and opinions.
We'll talk about whatever you like, and we can focus on the past, present or future as you see fit. However, if you tell me too many irrelevant details, if you start doing small-talk and updating me about your day-to-day life, I will ask you if you're trying to avoid talking about the heavy stuff and why that might be. After all, friends are GREAT for small talk - talk therapists, not so much. We're in it for the deep stuff!
Speaking of friends, why can't you just talk to a good friend about your stuff?
Well, I wholeheartedly encourage you to!
There are just a few problems with that sometimes.
Friends are amazing but none of us are taught how to really listen to understand someone. We're taught how to listen in order to answer.
Ever noticed that when you're telling someone about a bad day or an awful situation, they're super keen on giving you advice on how to deal with it or fix it? But that's not really what you wanted. That's because they're listening to answer and not listening to understand.
Also, friends haven't necessarily figured out life themselves, so they're likely to offer you unhelpful advice that's based on their own unhelpful ways of thinking about life.
Friends are also great champions, so they're quick to defend you and use nasty language against anyone who's hurt you. And that is truly awesome when you're in a bad mood. It's just not very useful for resolving a situation.
If you want to moan about your partner to a friend and they say "Oh yeah, she/he is so selfish. Such an a**hole. You really should just leave." It can quickly feel awkward when you don't leave and stay with this person your friend has declared an a**hole!
A therapist won't do that. They'll stay impartial. They'll listen and validate your feelings and story and then they'll offer you an alternative way of seeing things. And best of all, if you moan about your partner, mother and boss, your therapist will never meet any of them in real life! Awkwardness avoided!
Behind closed doors, we're just fellow human beings. We've had our own issues and we're dealing with life's challenges as well, but the session will be about you and not us.
You don't need to worry about offending us, saying the 'wrong' thing, or about pleasing us or entertaining us. You don't have to censor yourself, and you don't have to be polite. If you like to swear, swear, but don't be too surprised if your therapist joins in to show you that they get it.
Behind closed doors, you'll be respected and not judged - even if you think you'll be judged because you've cheated, or because you've lied, or because you've hit your children. We get it. We get that life just gets overwhelming and tough. We might not agree with your actions, but that doesn't mean we don't get them, and that we can't empathise (see the world through your eyes) or sympathise (feel sorry for you). We won't think you're a bad person for what you've done but we might suggest that your actions weren't very helpful to you or those around you.
We're good at keeping secrets but we do have our legal limits, so always check out a therapist's confidentiality clause (I’ll email you mine along with the contract before we start working together).
We won't become your friend outside the counselling space but we will be cheering you on inside of it.
We will even think about you out side of sessions, wondering how you're getting on - did you get that promotion? Did you have that chat with your partner? Did you call your dad? And we'll be reading up on ways to help you better next time or to understand your specific problem better.
And we will really like you. That's another one of those unspoken things in the counselling world, but we really will because we get the honour of seeing all of your - warts and all - and we're rather addicted to 'authenticity' and honest, raw, realness.
We won't think your issues are too small or too complicated. We won't find it unbearable to hear about your traumas - not because we don't care, but because we're trained in dealing with that sort of stuff, and also, people tend to think their problems are very dramatic and we've likely heard far worse (sadly).
The most important thing overall is that you find someone who suits you and your needs. If you don't like them, don't blame yourself - they're just not your kind of person. Talk therapy can be so wonderful, so do yourself a favour and don't give up on experiencing that connection. There are plenty of therapists to go around!
Thank you for reading. I hope you enjoyed this article. If you did, or didn't, or want to add something or have a question, feel free to comment below (but try and be kind about it - I'm a terribly sensitive soul).
Don't forget that this is just my opinion. You don't have to agree. These pieces of writing are just here to make you think and take from it what you like and find helpful and ignore the rest. At the end of the day, it's your life and, therefore, what you consume, what you believe, and what you think and feel is your choice.
Also, this article has been brought to you by a perfectly imperfect, flawsome dyslexic. I hope any potential spelling or grammar mistakes didn't take away from your enjoyment.
Meandering thoughts about life and the meaning of everything, from a know-it-not-all!