I am very friendly, but I am not your friend...
What a counselling relationship is and what it offers you
that you can’t get somewhere else.
The relationship between you and your counsellor is a big part of what makes counselling work for you.
When I say the relationship, I mean firstly the unique nature of the way a counselling relationship is structured as opposed to the other relationships in your life, and secondly, whether you feel a sense of personal connection to the counsellor you are working with. Without either of these working properly for you, counselling is at best unlikely to have much impact on your situation and at worst it may be unethical and unsafe.
The counselling relationship is structured to create a particular space for you which allows you to feel safe and comfortable enough to have a very deep and challenging conversation that enables you to gain insight into yourself. All relationships in your life; friendships, partners, family, employer/employee, student/teacher or being a parent and many others (all good things), are structured. Either formally or informally each relationship has rules. For example in an informal relationship; you have your friend’s back they have yours, you keep their private stuff private, you're honest with each other etc. No one wrote them down, but you know what they are for you. Possibly they are a little different from person to person and there are cultural wrinkles in different groups and contexts.
Other relationships are formal like a student/teacher relationship. A teacher may be a very friendly teacher but, if they start acting like a friend and peer of a student, they have crossed a big ethical line. Also they are destroying the relationship that makes a classroom a safe and effective environment for students’ learning and development.
A counselling relationship has a very formal structure which professional counsellors adhere to, but one in which a feeling of connected relationship is crucial. The ethics of how a counsellor should relate to their clients is clearly outlined in the New Zealand Association of Counsellors’ (NZAC) code of ethics which I follow as a Registered Member (all professional associations have a code - make sure your counsellor is a member of one).
Unlike friendship which, when found at it’s best, is an even relationship between two people who give, take and support one another, the relationship between counsellor and client is an unbalanced one. The way I begin to describe it is that I am very friendly but I am not your friend. Now before you feel hurt or shocked, what that means is that our relationship will be one where I always support you and you never have to support me. You do not have to worry about me getting worn out talking about your situation. I am never going to decide you're weird and slowly edge away from hanging out with you. I'm not going to judge you for your thoughts, feelings, emotions or actions.
I will accept you, truly listen to what you're saying, be fully present and not distracted by anything else going on. I will care about you because I am me, because it's my job and I choose to care about all my clients. But, I care about you like a counsellor. Not like a son, father, friend, partner, employee, pastor or colleague. That means that as you tell me about what's going on, I don’t tell you what I think you should do or act in your best interest according to my own values or experience (often good things for those in other roles to do). I will help you think about and reflect on the challenges you bring to counselling. If it is appropriate and you want to, I can give you options of strategies you could try if you would like. I am not going to choose to do anything you don’t want me to do. I am going to keep everything we talk about completely between us unless you actually give me explicit consent to communicate it to someone on your behalf.
There are very clear boundaries around this. If you are going to harm yourself in a very serious way, someone else is going to harm you, or someone else is going to be harmed I need to act as a counsellor to prevent that harm. Understanding this boundary line is very important but I won’t explain it it more than that here (if you talk to a counsellor make sure you understand this line really well).
A client once said to me that he wanted to talk to someone not emotionally involved in the situation he was struggling with. This is the space a counsellor offers by this relationship - a safe protected space with someone who cares and listens but is not going to be hurt or stressed out by your thoughts, feelings and actions you are considering. There is no risk to exploring those out loud with me, and when you have understood and feel clear about them, you can go to the others in your life and share what you have figured out if you choose.
In one sense I have no agenda for your life because I am not, for example, trying to get you stay in your job or leave it. I am helping you understand what your thoughts, feelings and hopes are for your career and life and then you will be able to decide what the best choice for you is. Having said that, as your counsellor I do have an agenda, I want you to be having the safe, healthy and awesome life you want, the way you choose it to be. Everything I do when I work with you has that goal in mind.
An effective counselling relationship has been shown to be a huge part of what helps people in counselling, more than any particular method or tool a counsellor uses. It’s a kind of support person and relationship that you can’t get anywhere else than from a professional.
If you decide this is a kind of support you need, find a counsellor who is a member of a professional association, such as NZAC. Then meet them and see if you have a connection with them that feels like it’s is going to work for you. There are many exceptional, highly trained professionals out there who I wouldn’t go to for counselling myself, because I just don’t feel that sense of connection with them personally, but they may be just the right person for you. As a counsellor, I understand this about myself and I expect it to be no different for you. Don't give up on counselling if the first experience you had wasn’t a good fit. Keep looking. You will find the right counsellor for you.