Counselling can be a trap. There are other solutions

Miriam has been seeing a therapist for two years. Why? She isn’t depressed. She has a job most people would die for, and it isn’t overly demanding. Her boyfriend is a bit self interested, and she thinks she should dump him. She even has a plan to get a job in another, distant city, which would put space between them.

So, why spend two years with the therapist? What is she getting out of it? Most importantly, how is it moving her forward?

Therapy is great if you need someone to say, ‘You aren’t crazy. What you tell me is not uncommon.” It validates you, and tells you you’re making sense.

But there’s a risk that you keep going over the same ground and not move forward. Some people use a therapist like a crutch, something that gives them security. Others use therapist like a friend, someone to chat to about their day-to-day issues.

After two years, Miriam isn’t making headway. She doesn’t have Agency. She isn’t being decisive. If she needs to separate from her boyfriend she should do so. At the very least they could have a trial separation.

Does therapy work? Well, mostly it doesn’t fail. You’ll rarely find example of bad things things happening because of someone going to a therapist.

Here’s the big problem: therapists focus on the problem. They don’t like to talk about solutions. They’ve been taught not to recommend actions, because clients don’t take advice. It’s Catch 22. They don’t discuss solutions, so the client doesn’t know how to move forward.

So if you go to a therapist, they’ll encourage you to keep talking about what’s on your mind. It can go on forever – as long as you keep paying. Therapists believe that by surfacing the problem the you’ll reach a solution of your own accord. But if you’re still talking after a year, it’s not working.

If you have a mental health problem, you could try other options, such as dance, volunteering, helping others, getting involved in the community, finding friends, or self hypnosis.

Want to hear more? Are you sitting down? Some critics see therapy as self-indulgent narcissism for rich Westerners. That’s a slightly extreme view because some of us genuinely need to get things off their chest, and we don’t have anyone we can trust. Nevertheless, taken to extreme it can look like self-absorption rather than self-care.

And therapists have a guilty secret: as long as there’s no solution, you’ll keep coming back to them.

Are you asking permission?

One reason people go to therapy is to ask permission. That’s right. You may be going to therapy just to ask permission to live your own life the way you want.

Most therapists withhold permission. They don’t do so intentionally. It’s just that they’re taught not to give advice. So, mostly, they just say ‘uh huh’ to whatever you say. They re-phrase what you’ve said (‘So you feel your parents didn’t love you?’). It’s like having a non-committal parent.

Some therapists do recognise this issue, and explicitly give their clients permission. That’s a little known trade secret, by the way.

Here are some permissions that a therapist, like a priest, will bestow on a client who comes to their confessional.

  1. Permission to exist. The counsellor says to the client, ‘Yes, you exist; and you have the  right to exist’.
  2. Permission to think their own thoughts and feelings, rather than what others say or think they should do.
  3. Permission to be a grown up. The client is free to grow and develop as they choose, and be the gender and sexual orientation they want. They can choose their own purpose, lifestyle and work.
  4. Permission to have emotions. The client is entitled to show their feelings. They don’t have to keep them cooped up.
  5. Permission to be close to other people. The client is entitled to love and be loved.

But do you really need a therapist to tell you this, and to validate you? And mostly they won’t. Isn’t the issue you’re wrestling with obvious? It’s the thing you keep talking about. Life has dealt you some bad cards. Now is the time to saddle up, get on your horse, and get moving. Everything else is just talk.

And sure, talk to your significant other. It helps to hear yourself say the words. But don’t pay a counsellor to listen to you.

Three solutions that might be better than therapy

Three alternatives to conventional therapy come to mind.

1. The first is so-called Solutions Focused Therapy (SFT). Hurray! Therapists who aim for a resolution! But the methodology they use doesn’t seem to be practical. SFT therapists follow a specific routine, asking you their so-called ‘Miracle Question: “Assume your problem is gone. What does this mean to you?” To me that sounds a bit theoretical. It looks like the promise of SFT doesn’t really deliver.

2. The second solution is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). This definitely focuses on solutions. CBT is ideal for people with anxiety or depression. It gets the client to agree that the terrible outcomes they fear are unlikely to happen. It seeks to remove negative thoughts by pointing out that those negative thoughts will impede your progress. But CBT is less useful for people who just lack agency.

3. And that brings us to the third option, which is coaching. A coach can be brutal, requiring you to list what steps you will take next week, and then checking whether you’ve done that. So coaching is aligned with the principle of agency. However, the coach will only get you to do what you should be doing anyway – taking action.

Let’s summarise this:

If you have a mental health problem, seeing a counsellor makes sense. But if you do that for more than two months, you’re not reaching for a solution, you’re just navel gazing.

CBT is good for people with depression or anxiety. If that’s you, CBT might help. A coach could help you take action. But you could save money by just following the steps outlined in this book, and developing ag

Do you want help with achieving change in your life? We have a coaching programme that could help you. Learn more.