Is Counseling a Model For Relating?
Updated: Aug 5, 2019
It seems obvious that, as in many professions, one wears a different hat as a counselor than when relating to people in a non-professional capacity, i.e. in "everyday life". The counselor is not a counselor to people outside of the workplace. This is for many reasons, including the fact that the counselor cannot be trusted to counsel responsibly in relationships where the counselor cannot take distance and is also invested in outcomes that are personally appealing. For instance, a woman could not be a counselor to her husband if he was seeking guidance on a topic such as whether to take out a mortgage to purchase a new house. Or she could not be a counselor to a friend who was trying to decide whether to take a job in a different state.
The problem is not that the counseling relationship is a hierarchical one. I would say even that, as a result of a strange equation, the counseling relationship is rather equal. What makes it equal is that, on the one hand, all of the focus of counseling is on the client -- only the client's life and choices count as interesting in the counseling relationship. On the other hand, the counselor does not make themselves vulnerable or exposed the way that the client does. The counselor has the counter-status of being more invulnerable in the relationship, and of being the one whose guidance is needed. A regular friendship may be just as equal as the counseling relationship, but in a regular friendship it would be inappropriate for the main focus to be on only one of the two friends, just as it would be inappropriate for the other of the two to aspire to the role of a guide.
But does this mean that the practice of counseling does not inform the way that the counselor may ideally relate to people outside of work?
I find that counseling does affect how one behaves in one's personal life, and I'll offer two examples.
1) Counseling requires entering into the subjective standpoint of another person. In regular life, one is often tempted to apply labels to other people, and to their behavior patterns (e.g. "person Y always puts themselves first", or "person Z can't handle responsibility"). One then thinks that by pointing out these labels to said person, that person will be provoked to change. In counseling, one tries to view someone according to their potential, rather than their limits. One senses that one has violated the relationship if one labels the client in a limiting way. At most, the counselor might label as problematic an activity that the client engages in; but whenever discussing the client themselves, it is the counselor's role to recognize the strength and potential in the client, and not to reduce the client to anything less than that. In my experience, I have found that this practice ends up affecting the way one sees and speaks to people outside of the counseling sphere as well.
2) Although the counselee is the only explicit focus of the counseling process, it is not only the counselee who can grow and reach greater self-knowledge through the counseling relationship. The counselor does too. Sometimes, if progress is not happening in the counseling relationship, it could actually be a sign that the counselor needs to work out an internal obstacle. Recently on Quora, I was reading answers by a therapist to a question about how well therapists remember their clients. A therapist who answered said the following:
"Yet, I also had a patient whom I could not remember from session to session—even with notes. As weeks passed, I began to think that not remembering him was diagnostic. In other words, if I can’t remember him, it is likely that nobody else remembers him either. He was not memorable— why? That became the focus of my thinking and the way in which we worked."
It struck me that absent from her explanation for continuously forgetting a specific client is the possibility that this reflected something about her, rather than the client. Was there some reason why a specific type of person would pass her by as virtually unworthy of recollection? What might this reveal about her, too? Similarly, I have read another therapist's account of working with a child client, in which he portrays his occasional tendency to fall asleep during sessions as an effect primarily exerted by the child (and so, again, "diagnostic"). Missing is the acknowledgement that the therapist's boredom could be revealing about what the therapist values or is excited by. In my (still limited but growing!) experience as a counselor, I have found that I have to confront my own limitations as well when seeking to enable a context of growth for the client. For instance, I tend not to experience wide variations in emotion, but I sometimes worry that I cannot understand my clients as deeply because of this. It has led me to ask whether I have deliberately numbed myself towards certain feelings of both joy and sadness, in order to avoid living in an emotionally uncontrolled way. Emotional flatness may be a limiting strategy I have developed, that is getting in the way of a deeper kind of growth. The counseling setting forces the question of what real growth is - and whether our various coping strategies are the right way to seek it.