When Counselling doesn’t work

MP900402328I remember reading two articles in the popular press, some time ago now.  The first told the story of a man struggling to control his depression and the second of a man unable to control his temper.  In both cases extensive counselling was undertaken but the ‘problem’ continued.

Implicit in both articles was the belief that counselling has the magical quality of being able to help anyone with any problem at any time.  I realised that many counsellors, consciously or unconsciously, collude with such magical thinking.

When I took my first steps in counsellor training back in 1978, it never occurred to me to think that counselling could be inappropriate, ineffective or unhelpful.  Indeed, had such things been suggested I suspect I would have been deeply offended and passionately defensive.  I was on an evangelical quest – I genuinely believed everyone could benefit from counselling, that there was no problem too great that it could not profit from counselling and no one so damaged that therapeutic skill and Rogers’ Core Conditions could not heal.  These thoughts, together with my own journey of healing and self-development and my optimistic nature, had made me, with the benefit of hindsight, dangerously naive.

Looking back, I don’t blame myself for my naivety as at that time issues of social context, oppression and power were not part of the syllabus – the focus was on the inner world.  Little if any time was given to issues of psychopathology and how such understanding can save both the client and counsellor time, money, guilt and despair.  Person-centred counselling held out new hope of helping everyone find their true self and was seen as a new and exciting way forward.  Counselling was little more than embryonic and practitioners like myself did most of our learning ‘on the job’.

In the last thirty years great strides have been made in considering each of these subjects. Counsellors now leave diploma courses far better equipped than my generation.  However, I still see well-meaning, overly optimistic counsellors who are unwilling or unable to consider the limitations of the counselling they offer.  Such counsellors never really ask themselves the question ‘What type of client or or client problem would not benefit from counselling?’

Working with clients involves, amongst many other things, belief and hope; the counsellors’ belief in his or her chosen therapeutic orientation; the counsellor and the client’s hope that a useful therapeutic alliance can be forged, and that the motivation on the part of the client and the skill level of the counsellor match.  Hover, false hope and misguided beliefs cause despair for both parties.  After all, most clients, whether they are aware of it or not, have faith in the counselling process.  Many believe if they just work hard enough one day all will be well.  Perhaps that is the case.  However, perhaps the best some people can hope for is to manage their situation more effectively.  If clients are not realistically prepared for what counselling can and cannot do, disappointment sets in.

As we know, there is a long way to go in educating the media and, in turn, the general public.  However, each one of us needs to consider our own balance of belief and hope.  Are we too idealistic and, if so, could we do damage?  Does considering limitations plunge us into disillusionment and despair and, if so, why?  Finding a realistic balance which maintains belief and hope without abusing faith makes accepting the limitations of counselling perhaps one of our most difficult tasks.  Of equal difficulty may be the task of transmitting this balanced view via the media to the general public.

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