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What Do Counselors Really Do?

By The Rev. Dr. Graham Standish, PhD, MSW, MDiv, MA Executive Director

A favorite detective show recently got me thinking about how misunderstood counseling is in so many people’s minds. The detective’s partner had been shot and killed. Recognizing the detective’s growing rage, his supervisor kept bugging him to see the department therapist. The detective delayed, saying, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’m gonna do it.” But he never did.

Confiding to his new partner he said, “I don’t need any of that psychobabble crap! What am I supposed to do, talk about it, and that’s supposed to make it better? My partner’s dead!” The new partner replied, “It made me better.” The detective looked at him, shook his head, and said, “Probably because you’re a headcase already. Not me!”

Dismissing therapy after trauma has been a familiar theme on television and film for decades. It’s an easy target because most people don’t really know what happens in counseling. Unlike regular medical care where we and others can see tests, procedures, and treatments, in counseling, healing takes place privately, behind closed doors.

Yet counselors are as skilled as any in the medical field. They use a combination of scientifically proven techniques and artfully crafted skills. Counseling practices are rooted in empirical studies demonstrating what works best, but counselors are also students of human thinking, emotion, and behavior. They’ve devoted their lives to understanding people and relationships.

So, what really takes place behind the therapeutic walls?

First, counselors focus on building trust. Before any real healing can take place, a client needs to trust his or her therapist. So, the first few sessions are devoted to building a trusting relationship. It explains why you’ll hear some dismissively say, “Yeah, I went to therapy for a few sessions. It didn’t do anything for me!” Of course, it didn’t. The therapist was mostly listening in order to build trust.

The person coming to counseling is struggling with issues built on decades of accumulated pain and struggles. These can’t be fixed in two or three sessions, and the more resistant someone is to counseling the longer it takes to build a trust deep enough to go deep.

Next, counselors explore with us. The deep work of counseling is exploring—exploring present problems, past experiences, and possible futures. Exploring someone’s past is hard work because memories aren’t factual. They’re emotional. It takes time to sift through how past events have shaped and even misshaped our present lives. Counselors identify how these experiences have created emotional and mental reactions to triggers, and how they’ve formed unhealthy actions and habits.

Counselors also explore possible new futures by helping people reimagine what a different life might look like They help us detach from painful pasts and unhealthy thoughts that have led to bad choices and explore better choices for a happier life. Then they help us consider healthy futures.

Finally, counselors help us reconfigure our lives. They help us change our thinking and doing so we can realize a new future. Reconfiguring is extremely difficult work because it’s so easy to feel trapped by the decisions we’ve made and the lives we’ve lived. We may have to end a toxic relationship and embrace a new path that’s unfamiliar and scary. Maybe we’ll have to leave a job or vocation to take on an unaccustomed, healthier one. Maybe we’ll need to let go of unhealthy, addictive habits and to form seeming alien, healthier ones. Maybe we’ll have to change how we remember and regard ourselves, our pasts, the people in our lives, and the world around us so that we can see everything and everyone, including ourselves, in a renewed light.

All of this takes time. It takes building strong relationships with counselors, exploring past and future, and then making decisions to change lives.

What we’re so proud of at Samaritan is that we are a center of highest quality counselors who heal from the highest levels of compassion, commitment, and competency. I hope this helps you understand what we do.

Be blessed.

The Rev. Dr. Graham Standish, PhD, MSW, MDiv, MA

Executive Director

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