One of the biggest fears and misconceptions that people have when they seek counselling is the idea they are going to have to bear their souls to their counsellor – to delve deep into the past and examine all the bad experiences that have led them to where they are today.
The popular concept is that counselling is in part a traumatic confrontation of negative past events in order to get to a better place (we call this process re-traumatising the client, not the best way to get to know someone!).
I remember talking to one client who felt burnt out from seeking help because any time they wanted a change in worker, or a counsellor moved on, they had to start from the beginning and tell their whole life story again. They reported this was a more painful experience than that which had actually bought them to counselling in the first place.
Is this a realistic expectation? To make counselling work, does the counsellor have to know everything about you, every negative or upsetting experience that’s brought you to where you are today? Do you have to bear your soul to get to the good stuff? Does counselling really have to hurt?
Our resounding answer is no.
In some models of psychotherapy, the need to dig deep into your past is considered very important. In the traditional Freudian psychoanalytic approach (popular in the early to mid-1900’s) this was considered the basis for any real change. You’d lie on the chaise lounge and the dispassionate voice of the psychologist would lead you through all the experiences of parental rejection and emotional damage from the past.
The idea that this is a necessary step in the path back to happiness is no longer supported in the majority of modern therapeutic approaches. And yet, in popular culture, many still think this is how the counselling experience is going to be. It’s going to be painful and it’s going to take a long time to get to the bottom of all the bad stuff.
If there was one popular misconception we could change about therapy it would be this (and maybe the idea that you must lie on a chaise lounge to undergo therapy at all!).
Our take is that, if going in to past events is going to be helpful to you, then the counsellor should follow your lead and go there. If there is one particular event that caused distress, then take the time to work through this and leave the rest alone if it’s not important to you feeling better and stronger.
I find in the majority of cases it is events/relationships/ experiences happening presently, and how we interpret and process these, that are the cause of most people’s troubles.
If you think your past might be contributing to whatever is troubling you, and it is something you think you want to tackle, then go for it. But if you just want to find some solutions to stuff that is not working for you right now, then focus on that and leave the rest for another time (or not at all!).
There is no right or wrong approach, except believing in outdated ideas about what counselling might once have been! Start where you are and go where you feel you need to. And if your psychologist/counsellor demands to hear the traumatic back story and you don’t want to go there, sack them!
Please share any comments or thoughts you might have on this, or any topic you’d like to discuss here – we’d love to hear from you.