The Emperor's New Clothes

Are Counsellors like “The Emperor’s New Clothes”?

Over the weekend I was at a public engagement and had some disturbing discussions. I am trying to put it into the “live & learn” bracket… yet I am failing. As it is Mental Health Awareness Week I thought I would share both my experience and my personal reactions.

As a Person-Centred Counsellor/Psychotherapist I spend much of my time with clients who by their very attendance at sessions show some form of acceptance and understanding of what I do as legit. Yet, when I attend events and venture out into society I often feel like I am defending myself and my vocation (and yes, I do use that word on purpose), as I often encounter a mix of apathy, dismissal, scepticism and criticism.

Obviously I do what I do because I believe that it is needed and it works. Yet some of the discussions and comments have me questioning this. Have I been living in a self-deluded bubble? Is this what everyone thinks? Some of the more hard-hitting comments I have heard:

“People shouldn’t need counselling, they can access support from family, friends, colleagues, communities… Counselling pathologizes “normal” thinking….”

People who go to counsellors are freeloaders and whiners, you should just “man up” and get on with it… I have to….

You (counsellors) don’t do anything that people can’t do for themselves; you’re a bit like the “emperor’s new clothes”

“What do you actually do?” “Are your qualifications real?”

“It’s all do-gooders & bleeding hearts”

“You leech off of the vulnerable and isolated”

Taking a deep breath, my rational side says that these people are a result of their circumstance and experience (their frame of reference) and that they have every right to their own opinion. I wonder how I should respond: I do not wish to sound defensive and as if I have an axe to grind. No one needs to have my beliefs rammed down their throat, yet I am often expected to accept people doubting (at best) or completely deriding my choices.

I wish I could “shake it off” with a “Gallic shrug”, but I can’t. So I will briefly try to answer some of the above questions:

Counsellors are quite clearly needed; you only have to look in the news or at the waiting lists of charities such as The Dove Service. Reams of research prove that counselling can work. GPs refer clients for counselling: we are a legitimate service and resource.

Clearly peoples’ normal coping strategies and/or support systems are failing otherwise they would not seek and pay for the help of an anonymous stranger. Often people make many assumptions… not everyone has support or would like to address their issues with people that they have to face in normal life.

I spend a lot of my time telling clients that their emotions, reactions, thoughts and troubles are both normal and Ok. For some reason emotions and feelings can often be seen as weird and unacceptable in today’s world. People who feel are seen as week.

My clients are amazing people; often they have managed the unmanageable for a long time before they approach me for my help. They try every strategy and coping mechanism (some harmful) before they enter the counselling room.

Yes, my qualifications are real: I have spent a lot of time, money and energy gaining my qualifications and experience. My qualifications are endorsed by the BACP and by the professional standards agency.

I do my very best to keep my prices as low as I am able, but I have also met with prejudice that if you are too cheap then you can’t be that good. All Counsellors have to have volunteered and accrued practical hours during their training. That’s hundreds of unpaid hours expected before you can consider being paid.

Perhaps if the world was less hostile, more understanding and accepting to those with mental health Issues or concerns, maybe people wouldn’t need Counsellors, maybe they would be access the support and the space in their daily lives and support networks. As it is I offer people space, I give them time, I do my very best to listen and to assist them to see the very best (and sometimes the very worst of themselves) and to become themselves “but better”.

I give my clients room to breathe, to be themselves, to take the filters off, to say it how it really is.

Actually you know what – I enjoy what I do, what I do works, I can’t change the world’s attitude but I can help clients to help themselves one client at a time and that’s good enough for me.

In the meantime…


PS. If any of my clients would like to comment or send me anonymous comments to add that would be awesome.

Image: screen capture from the movie Shrek by Dreamworks Animation.