What is counseling? When can it help?

Counseling can provide a safe place to be heard, to reflect and develop insight about yourself
What is counseling? When can it help?

At some point of time or the other in our life, we go through challenges that seem greater than what we are familiar with or able to deal with. We can feel overwhelmed, exhausted, angry, helpless, scared, frustrated, sad or even incapacitated. At times, our responses to situations can baffle us or make us feel unsettled. Our lives can seem disrupted in some way. At such times, counseling can be a helpful way to talk about one’s difficulties in an empathetic and confidential space, and cope with one’s challenges more effectively or meaningfully.

Let’s take a look at the following people and their situations.

Rajan, 43 years old, is a successful entrepreneur. He is financially secure and has a loving family. He had faced much adversity in his childhood and has worked hard to overcome his struggles and get to this juncture in his life. However, he feels unable to relax or enjoy and has a nagging sense of being rushed, and is constantly stressed. He has had a few angry outbursts lately and it is beginning to affect him and his personal and professional relationships.

Lakshmi, 35 years old, came back from a long and tiring day of meetings and a stressful commute. All she wanted to do after she came home was go to bed and forget her worries. The last thing she wanted was to have a conversation with her husband. That’s how it always started – an innocuous conversation that would end up in a big fight. She hated coming home and wished she could be elsewhere.

Amit, 19 years old, was a bright student in college. He was energetic and friendly. However, when his father was diagnosed with a serious illness, the situation at home changed suddenly – his mother got busy with his father’s care, his grandparents moved in with them to help, and he could see that his family was in a financial crisis. He tried his best to keep up with his studies but felt disconnected, hopeless and increasingly alone, distancing himself from his friends. He feared that his father might die and wondered about what would happen to him and his family. Yet no one in the family talked about it. It was the elephant in the room.

Can counseling help Rajan, Lakshmi and Amit? In all these cases, the simple answer is yes, counseling can help.

Counseling is for everyone

Counseling is for everyone, and it can be particularly helpful when things seem difficult or overwhelming. Counseling is a process and journey that can help us understand ourselves better, and develop clarity and perspective on the situation we are dealing with. It can also help us make sense of our life experiences, identify better and constructive ways of coping with our challenges, facilitate change, enhance self-esteem and discover resilience. All of these can contribute to personal growth and a deeper connection with ourselves to lead a more fulfilling life.

Sometimes there could be pressing concerns or burning issues that need attention. At other times, experiences from the distant past may be impacting our present experience, behavior and relationships. At some stage, there may be a need to explore possibilities for the future, or feel more integrated and self-aware. Irrespective of the nature of the concern, counseling provides a safe place to be heard without judgement, to reflect and to develop insights to be in touch with ourselves.

While there could be many triggers to reach out for counseling, here are a few areas where counseling can be very helpful.

  • Relationship issues: interpersonal conflicts, breakups, marital and family conflicts

  • Coping with difficult emotions: Anger, fear, anxiety, pain, loneliness,stress

  • Dealing with abuse: physical, sexual, verbal or psychological

  • Dealing with domestic violence

  • Understanding gender identity, sexuality issues

  • Dealing with life stage transitions and challenges: employment, marriage, separation, divorce, parenting, aging, retirement

  • Workplace issues: managing conflicts, performance, career aspirations & satisfaction, harassment

  • Coping with mental illness such as depression, schizophrenia

  • Coping with physical illness

  • Dealing with addictions, self-harm and suicidal thoughts

  • Coping with death, loss and bereavement

  • Coping with trauma and disability

  • Coping with caregiving for someone with physical or mental illness

  • Children and adolescent issues: behavioural challenges, academic stress, impact of family conflicts, peer pressure, bullying, etc.

Why do I need to talk to a counselor when I can talk to a friend or family? What can I expect from a counselor?

Increasingly, a good number of people are reaching out to a counselor when they recognize the need. However, there are still many who believe it is taboo or find it uncomfortable to be in counseling.  It is often thought that counseling is for the young and disturbed, for the weak-minded or for people with mental illness. Some believe that counseling is about giving advice and it is better to talk to someone known – like a close friend or a family member.

When Lakshmi spoke to a close friend about her fights at home, her friend said, “It happens in all relationships. Your problems are far less complicated that you think. Its okay, you know.” Somehow, it did not help Lakshmi in any way to hear this. On the contrary, she began to second guess herself - was she really making a mountain out of a molehill? Could Lakshmi have felt dismissed?

Rajan tried speaking to his cousin about his struggles. His cousin said, “Don’t tell me! You are the role model in our family and our inspiration. When you can run a company, what is this after all? You are not a sadhu to be calm all the time. Cheer up, now!” Rajan had mixed feelings – the humor was not comforting, and it felt like it was not okay for him to have any vulnerability or express it.

Talking to a friend or a family member can be helpful, and friendly advice may be well intended – but there is a risk of their personal bias or judgment interfering. At times, it may be worrisome to talk to others for fear of burdening them. It is also possible that others may not be in a position to sufficiently understand or empathize with one’s situation or they may simply be preoccupied. A friend or a family member may find it difficult to listen to painful emotions or handle it without discomfort.

However, a counselor is in a unique position – they are not a friend or family, and are not connected to the client socially. A counselor offers a purposeful relationship and a safe, non-judgmental and confidential space for one to talk about one’s experiences, however difficult or painful they may be. A counselor is a trained professional who brings a theoretical background, an understanding of therapeutic skills,  and uses tools and approaches that are best suited to the client’s needs. A counselor offers empathy, support, confidentiality, and importantly, challenges the client when appropriate. It is also important to know that counseling is not about giving advice to fix a problem – rather, it is a process to encourage self-reflection which can help a person arrive at a pathway to coping with their issues and empower themselves.

While each counselor may have a different style of working, it is fair to expect that initially, a counselor will spend some time understanding the nature of the client’s difficulty and what brings their client to counseling.  A counselor will explore the client’s family, relationships and health background, and work with them to identify goals for therapy. Subsequently, the counselor will engage in the process of therapy with the client, to move in the direction of their goals.

A counselor is not a medical professional and will not diagnose or prescribe medication. A counselor can work in collaboration with other mental health professionals like psychiatrists and clinical psychologists in the interest of the client’s therapeutic needs.

**The vignettes presented here describing people are used for the purpose of illustration and do not represent actual clients.

Archana Ramanathan is a practising counselor with Parivarthan Counseling Training and Research Centre.

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