How Does Counseling Work?

One of the more common misconceptions about counseling is that the primary purpose is to rehash troubling events from the past. This is a particularly harmful misconception because, if you believe it, you are likely to conceive of counseling as a painful and futile exercise since, obviously, no amount of conversation can ever change the past.

Of course, counselors do talk to clients about past events but when they do the primary focus is on understanding the impact these events may be having on current thoughts, behaviors and feelings.

At its heart, counseling is a process designed to help people to think more clearly, improve their performance in targeted domains and increase feelings of well being in the present.

Counseling works by helping clients bring improved levels of attention, calm and understanding to the challenges of everyday life.

The reasons why individuals decide to see a counselor are as varied as people themselves. They may be unhappy with the way they are responding to their families or the way their families are responding to them. They may be troubled by sad or angry or anxious feelings. They may be worried about their futures or distracted by intrusive thoughts about their past. They may be concerned about their drinking, performance at work, bad choices or chronic boredom.

While the particulars may have nearly infinite variety there is a common thread: people come to counseling because they need to talk about something. While this may seem obvious, many people seeking counseling are both surprised and embarrassed by their need to talk to someone about a personal issue because:

  • They believe it represents a failure- i.e., they should have been able to solve the problem themselves.
  • They don’t understand what difference talking about it could make- after all they have been thinking about the problem non-stop and that hasn’t done any good!

One of the reasons counseling is helpful to people is precisely because it moves them away from a habit of thinking about a problem and replaces that habit with a new practice of talking about a problem. Thinking about a problem can work very well if the problem is purely analytic and linear and doesn’t have significant emotional content. If the problem has a lot of emotional overlay, however, thinking usually needs to give way to talking before progress and change occur.

If we are embedded in a problem that has high emotional content, particularly a long-standing problem, our thinking about that issue may become stuck in a cycle of repetitive, upsetting and negative thoughts. Talking about the problem can disrupt this repetitive cycle and result in new ways of understanding and reacting to current life experiences. The discipline of putting thoughts into words so that another person can understand them is, in itself, a powerful exercise in developing self-awareness.

Sometimes the best option is to talk to a trusted friend or family member who knows you and has a personal stake in helping you. In other situations you might feel more comfortable talking to a professional counselor for privacy reasons or because you prefer to start this process with an entirely neutral person with relevant training and experience.

Either way, if repetitive thoughts and feelings about past events (or of anticipated future events) are interfering with your ability to be the person you want to be now you might consider making this critical  shift from thinking about problems to talking about them.

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