Counseling has always had a certain mystique to it. As such, the field is filled with myths, and all myths exist out of a need to understand something mysterious, hidden, or difficult. This is because our communities do not openly talk about it, and only pay lip service to it when undesirable events happened. When teenagers become delinquents or talk back to their parents, when college students and pop stars commit suicide, when criminals are caught. Counseling is typically only brought up in the aftermath of these events and seen as a counter / corrective measure.
Thus, the common impression about counseling is “people talk to counselors about issues, get their minds read, gets some educated advice, and magically get better”. No wonder people misunderstand the profession, mystify it (as if counselors are mediums or shamans), and keep a distance from it. This process not only hurts the advancement of counseling, but also the public at large who could benefit from having their stories and experiences being heard and respected, and gain clarity about themselves alongside their directions in life.
Today let’s look at some of these myths and set the record straight.
5 Myths About Counseling
1. Counseling is for severe and critical problems
The reason this myth appears is because most people view counseling as a measure to prevent suicide or divorce, or to rectify criminal or dangerous behavior. The truth is that counselors work with most forms of personal concerns, whether it is handling stressors, getting control over emotions, or aiding with personal decisions.
This of course includes problems that may be severe, such as managing mental illnesses or suicidal-violent behaviors. That being said, many if not most people can benefit from counseling if they wish to discover more about themselves and figure out concerns that may need working on. The idea that counseling services is reserved for severe problems is misleading and even harmful.
2. Counseling is for the mentally weak
There is also the notion that normal people have to work out their own life problems themselves, and thus any form of getting help with that responsibility is a form of mental weakness, that such persons cannot be responsible for their own lives. This idea of weakness is not only harmful, but disrespectful to those who have been brave enough to reach out and allowed themselves to be vulnerable to another being.
The truth is many of us have been hurt as individuals, but unaware that we may need to address it. At some point, it is likely that we have had our psychological needs neglected, such as having our personal freedoms infringed (punishment or imprisonment), have our talents doubted (getting compared to others or failing at tasks), and our needs for social connection deprived (being ostracized or rejected). It is not anyone’s fault that they are exposed to these, and generalizing these as ‘weakness’ is displacing blame on victims. Fact is, being able to seek counseling and acknowledge that their lives are not perfect is a rare strength.
3. Counseling is about getting advice about life
Advice giving sounds like what counselors would do. The term ‘counsel’ is synonymous to ‘advice’, and common sense dictates that providing guidance and counsel would also mean giving advice.
But in practice, doling out advice is the opposite of what professional counselors strive to do. The guidance often happens as a result of the counseled individual obtaining new insight about themselves that they may not have been aware of before, which gives them newfound options and courage. It is not the counselor’s education level or amounts of knowledge that leads to these insights, but rather their attentiveness and reflection of the counseled’s viewpoints and story.
There are exceptions where the counselor can provide some expert recommendations, instructions, or suggestions of how to proceed in the future, or what the client can do outside sessions. But all in all, counseling is not about giving advice. Anything that you can Google up is unlikely to be the answer you want through counseling.
4. Counseling is for those who need their life ‘fixed’
This myth is spread because of managed care, where employees, students, and criminals are mandated to see counselors (by corporations, schools, and judicial systems). It is assumed that counseling will make them more effective and responsible members of their own communities, or in other words ‘fix them’.
But at the end of the day, counselors can only go where the counseled is willing to. The intention of counseling is never to ‘fix’ a person’s life, but to listen, empathize, and accompany the person on his or her journey to gain insight.
In counseling, the counseled themselves must strive to create the change they want in order for counseling to be effective. The process, if forced or mandated, is unlikely to be effective. This is why even though people can improve in their desired domains in life through counseling, the idea of ‘fixing’ them is an inaccurate, if not harmful one.
5. Counseling will make problems public.
This myth is not exactly widespread through culture, but one that individuals make up themselves out of fear, to protect themselves from their issues. A fair concern for any individual is that, ‘why would I tell this person about my problems? Won’t many people know about it?’
A simple search on the counseling profession will reveal that counselors do their utmost best to protect the client’s confidentiality. Confidentiality is a fundamental cornerstone of the profession, where everyone is trained to act and discuss in a manner that prevents the client from being identified. There are drastic situations that may override the confidentiality, such as potential suicide, homicide, or court mandate, but ultimately all counselors wish that their counseling relationships to stay private matters.
I hope I have made a convincing disputation of the myths around the counseling profession and perhaps encouraged more to step up and look for the help that they may need. Let us know in the comments if there are anything you wish to know more about counseling.
Also, if you happen to be looking for counseling services but unsure if you want to commit to paid counseling or unable to afford, you can consider counseling trainees too! A group of students (myself included) pursuing Master of Professional Counseling are currently practicing at Monash University Malaysia (Sunway Campus) under the supervision and guidance of experienced mental health professionals. Both students and members of the public are welcome to sign up for sessions with us. Check out this link to sign up for free counseling https://sites.google.com/view/mopc-practicum-counselling/home
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