People who haven’t been to counseling (and that’s most people) only know counseling as it is portrayed on television and in the movies. This, of course, means they barely understand anything about the actual process at all. Here are some myths about counseling, and a few words about the truth.
1. Myth: Counselors always say, “And how did that make you feel?”
Reality: Because this is lampooned so much in the media, many of us try not to use it very often, although it is an excellent way of helping clients stay concrete (rather than abstract) and immediate (in the present moment).
2. Myth: A good counselor will/should give you advice.
Reality: Perhaps the #1 sign of a counselor who is not very skilled is that he will give advice all the time. A good counselor will help you think clearly through your options and outcomes, so you can make a decision based on as much knowledge as possible. She will will not simply tell you what to do. If you just want someone to tell you what to do, ask a friend or family member.
3. Myth: Counseling is going to “fix” me
Reality: Counseling can be a tremendous source of encouragement, especially if you establish a trusting relationship with your counselor. But the work of growth will never be done. Counseling isn’t like fixing a broken arm. Be reasonable about it and give the process time to work.
4. Myth: There are pills for a lot of what bothers me and a counselor will help me get on those pills
Reality: Though there are very effective medications to help treat some issues, like depression and anxiety, not everyone needs them. And studies show that even those who go on them will do better if they combine medication with ongoing therapy. Many counselors will urge you to resist getting on medication, as it can mask what is really going on that is causing your problem.
5. Myth: A counselor will fix my kid
Reality: Kids live in families. Problems often spring up in kids because something is broken in the family. Counselors work with kids to help them live the best life they can in the environment they are in. When this means behaving better, we deal with that, because poor behaviors make the child’s life miserable, as well as everyone else’s. When you take your child to counseling, be prepared at some point to ask the counselor, “How might I be contributing to the problem? What would you suggest?” Be open to the answers. If you can’t bring yourself to be open to this question, I that might be a significant part of the problem.
6. Myth: Counselors, psychologists, social workers, and psychiatrists are basically the same.
Reality: Although we do some of the same kinds of work, the training for each of these is different. A counselor is usually someone with a Master’s degree whose training has been in how to help normal people with normal problems (job loss, sadness, divorce, meaninglessness, ordinary depression, grief and bereavement, etc.). A psychologist is usually a person with a doctorate whose training has been primarily in how to help people with problems that are considered abnormal — conditions like schizophrenia, extreme bi-polar illness, extreme depression, severe personality disorders, etc. A social worker is usually someone with a Master’s degree whose primary training has been in how to help people access resources in the community that can be helpful to them (getting shelter for a battered woman, treatment for an alcoholic, etc.). Increasingly, many social workers are also trained in clinical skills like counselors, to do clinical therapy with a more or less normal population. A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who did a two year residency in mental health after medical school. She is the only one of this group who can prescribe medications, so counselors, social workers, and psychologists will sometimes refer certain clients to a psychiatrist for evaluation and possible treatment with medication. Psychiatrists and psychologists often work in mental hospitals with the severely mentally ill.
7. A male counselor cannot help a female client, and vice versa
Reality: Most of the time a good male counselor can very effectively help a woman and a good female counselor can very effectively help a man. This is almost always purely a matter of client preference. Who do you find easiest to talk to?
8. Myth: Counselors always want to talk about a person’s childhood
Reality: A good counselor is concerned with how you are functioning in the present. The only time there is any value in looking at the past is when issues from your past are still affecting the way you think and feel and behave in the present.
9. Myth: If I go to counseling, the counselor will reveal something to me about myself that is so deep and scary that I will not be able to handle it.
Reality: Most of the time when people go to counseling, the opposite happens — they walk away from their first appointment saying, “Did anything at all really happen?” ! They will often use this as an excuse not to go back (because even after you start going, parts of you will still try to get out of it). Once in a great while someone will learn something really big about herself in her first session. Then, of course, she will try to use this big event as an excuse not to go back. In either case, you need to go back and let the process work. Don’t worry that you can’t handle something. Scary revelations, when they occur, are a sign that you are hitting on something huge, that will bring you freedom as you work through it!