I believe that the goals of counseling are much broader than symptoms reduction. Counseling does not work like medicine. In medicine, you go to see the doctor when something is wrong or to make sure that nothing is wrong. If there is an issue, your doctor does what he can to fix it.
The mission of counseling is much more expansive. Does counseling address, improve and eliminate symptoms? Of course it does! But it doesn’t stop there. Counseling heals and grows the entire person. It increases self-awareness, self-knowledge and self-acceptance. With counseling people become much better not just at dealing with life’s hardships, traumas and crushing disappointments but they become better able to love, work, and play. Their sense of personal freedom expands and they understand themselves, others and the world in more realistic and adaptive terms. These benefits increase even after counseling is over and last for the rest of the person’s life. Counseling not only heals the person, it grows the person.
My favorite example is that of a robot I saw on a science show once. The robot was absolutely incredible. It was a robot that was designed to carry a soldier’s gear. It was like a robotic mule. It could go across difficult terrain, up hills and over ice. It wouldn’t even fall over if someone tried to kick it over! Amazing machine, amazing abilities. As I kept watching the segment, thoroughly impressed, I saw this robot walk right into a lake and destroy itself. Why did it do that? The answer is simple. A robot doesn’t know what it is. It doesn’t know anything about itself. It has zero self-awareness and zero self-knowledge. With all its amazing abilities the robot was still fundamentally vulnerable, weak and reliant on humans for its continued existence and functionality. When teens lack these attributes they are not much different than this amazing but susceptible robot. As teens develop these skills they tend to make better decisions, be more self-confident and feel happier.
My theoretical approach draws heavily from the psychodynamic tradition. In addition I am influenced by the person-centered approach of Carl Rogers. Below is a description of each therapeutic counseling tradition.
Focus on emotions and their expression
Something special happens when we put our emotions into words and there is someone there to listen to them and accept them. Not verbalizing what you feel keeps you pent up and that feeling increases the emotional pressure inside you. Expressing emotions relieves that pressure and contributes to the goals of counseling.
Exploration of attempts to avoid distressing thoughts and feelings
There are definitely emotions, thoughts and things about ourselves that we would rather not talk about. Gently talking about why that could be and finding the courage to express those things encourages self-acceptance and self-knowledge – the cornerstones of a healthy mind.
Identifications of reoccurring themes and patterns
We all repeat patterns of behavior in our lives. Those patterns can often be self-defeating. Sometimes we don’t even notice until someone points it out to us in a way we can understand it. But when we finally see them and understand the underlying themes driving those patterns they naturally change.
Discussion of past experiences
We see the present through the lens of the past. Examining what happened to us and how we experienced it can help us avoid continuing to see our circumstances in a way that is no longer helpful. Discussing the past helps us to gain freedom from it as well as appreciation of it.
Focus on interpersonal relationships
Humans are social creatures. Understanding how we relate to others is essential for a fulfilling life. This understanding can free us up to relate to others more genuinely and experience more joy in our relationships.
Focus on the therapy relationship
Patterns lived out in life usually play out in the counseling room as well. Counseling provides a unique opportunity to address these interpersonal issues in real time during the counseling experience.
Exploration of fantasy life
Patients are encouraged to openly speak their mind with as little censorship as possible. Often times fantasies and day dreams can be a rich source of information on how people see themselves, others and the world.
Focus on accurate empathetic understanding by the therapist
Counselors train to accurately detect their patient’s emotions and state of mind. During the counseling experience this is essential for the counselor to understand the patient’s emotions in order to provide a sense of understanding and support.
The patient is unconditionally accepted at all times
This does not mean that the counselor approves of all the patient’s actions. However, the patient is always positively accepted as a person. This helps the patient with self-acceptance. It also provides an environment for the patient to explore their full range of emotions in a non-judgmental and growth producing environment.
The counselor strives to be genuine and open always
Anybody can pick up on phoniness and it’s devastating to the counseling process. The counselor should be genuine and modeling it for the patient is ideal.
Focus on the patient feeling understood by the counselor
A major goal of the therapeutic process is for the patient to feel like the counselor has an understanding of the difficulties in the patient’s life. Feeling understood allows the patient to keep going and explore new emotional terrain with the expectation that the counselor is capable of understanding and accepting both good and bad qualities.
Creates conditions for patients to heal themselves
In the environment provided by the combination of the above points people feel free to accept and change themselves. The patient and the counselor can embark on a therapeutic course that will follow its own self-healing logic and be meaningful and life changing to the patient.