Some people still have a dated view of counseling where there is a distinct difference between counseling and therapy. I was talking with one of my colleagues about these differences the other day.
Traditionally, the term “counseling” referred to a shorter-term therapy to help people get through crisis. Someone trained to do counseling could really only do short-term work with a client. This was viewed as a lesser experience than “therapy.”
“Counselors” did not have the skill to help clients through long-term, in-depth work. That was in the domain of a “therapist” who had better skills. A “Therapist” could not only help clients through their short-term crisis, but they could also help clients make longer-term changes.
So, traditionally, if you saw a counselor, they might teach you a few CBT or DBT skills and some mindfulness exercises to help you better regulate yourself, but they wouldn’t help you deal with why you were de-regulated in the first place.
For that, you would have to see a therapist.
First, a therapist would help you regulate how you felt and begin to build a strong foundation. Then, they would go well beyond that to understanding why you were de-regulating and move you into a place of a calm, centered, natural self.
A traditional therapist had an understanding of the formation of personality and the methods that lead to deep healing. The approach of a therapist and the methods they used have changed very little over time.
These methods allow the therapist to help you understand how you got to where you are in the first place. And, ultimately, help you do the long-term work that could help move away from long-standing unhealthy patterns that were continually impacting your life.
Inquiry Into Personal History
One of the most important tools a therapist uses is an inquiry into the client’s history. The therapist wants to understand our relational patterns which are the biggest legacy we carry from our childhood. Relational patterns determine how we feel emotionally and physiologically when we are in a relationship with someone and guide how we respond when a relationship creates some sense of anxiety.
For example, the therapist is interested in learning what the client’s mother was like, but more importantly what the relationship with their mother was like. The therapist is seeking to understand what the client, as a child, had to do relationally in order to maintain loyalty with parents.
Traditional Therapy At Heart Centered Counseling
I often ask my clients directly, “What happened with your sadness? If you had a bad day at school while in second grade, and came home feeling sad about it, what would you do in relation to your mother and your father?” I might ask, “Whose eyes lit up when they saw you? Did your mother’s? did your father’s?”
Then, I would begin to look for the correlation between how the client presented in session, how the client relates to people in the here and now, and what the client’s family of origin was like. Mostly, I am looking for the interruptions in contact that have persisted from childhood adaptations into all adult relationships. I am hoping to learn the ways in which the client pulls away or self soothes. What does the client do at the times when they cannot maintain the level of closeness they long for?
As I begin to understand how the client has learned to inhibit the natural self in relationship—usually in order to preserve relationship with mom and dad long ago, but still playing out today with everyone—I now want to work on resolving this interference in the everyday life.One way I might help the client find resolution is via the empty chair.
The Empty Chair
In order to guide them through the process, I would sit them down in front of an empty chair. I would invite them to think about a particular experience they might’ve described with Mom or with Dad—one that was emotionally painful. And then I would ask the client to imagine that they would put Mom or Dad into that empty chair.
Here, I want the client to:
- Go back in time and experience the feelings and the relational needs that could never be expressed.
- Share what couldn’t have been said aloud but needed to be.
- Have the needed relationship that never happened instead of the repeated dysfunctional relationship that happened over and over again.
I try to help the client get into an emotionally vulnerable place from which I ask them to communicate their feelings—the ones that they could not have said so long ago—and start to express the sadness and the anger that could not be spoken.
I’m am there every step of the way, supporting the client to move through the experience and have a voice. When you can have a voice in the face of the people who took your voice the way, then you can have your voice everywhere with everyone in everyday life.
That’s the goal here: to work through the original trauma, the original relational failures, and to reclaim our natural voice so that we have the courage to be who we are with those around us each and every day.