When thinking of starting therapy, how does a potential client approach it? What makes people feel comforted, and what scares people away? Is it more acceptable for one to say “I’m seeing a counselor”, or “I have an appointment with my therapist”? These are some of the questions that I recently started asking myself, and it got me to thinking, what’s in a professional name?
In order to better understand my dilemma, I thought that I would start with the definitions. I went to Google, and here is what I found. According to the dictionary, counselor has three definitions. The first is a person who gives counsel or advice. The second is an attorney. The third is a person who supervises young people at a summer camp. While I did spend six summers living in a tent supervising Boy Scouts, I don’t think that fits for my current work. I’m definitely not a lawyer (although sometimes I feel like I am). So that just leaves a person who gives advice.
While thinking about what a therapy session is, I know it may seem like a client comes to see those in my profession for advice, but as I was sitting in a session last week, and was asked “am I doing the right thing” by one of my clients, I thought to myself, is it really my place to tell this person what to do? I know that every practitioner has their opinions and biases, but the essential part of therapy is to provide an environment which is nonjudgmental, compassionate, and understanding. If we are present only to give advice, I think that we come dangerously close to crossing a line.
So returning to the dictionary, I decided to find out what the definition of a therapist was. There were two definitions. First, a therapist is one who specializes in the provision of a particular type of therapy like individual therapy. Second, a person with special skills, obtained through education, training, and experience, in one or more areas of health care. In thinking about this new set of definitions, although we as counselors or therapists work with people, we have so many therapeutic styles that I would be hard pressed to say that we provide a specific type of therapy, unless mental health can be a specific type of therapy. I feel that this definition is better left for occupational therapists, or speech therapists. I guess the second definition could work, but what really happens in therapy? The reality is that although education, training, and experience are important, it’s not nearly as important as the real relationship that exists between a practitioner and their client. Some of the most enlightening work of my career was when I was coaching high school swimming and diving teams. That had nothing to do with my education, training, or experience as a therapist, however the conversations that I had with the athletes could still be considered therapeutic.
So neither a counselor, nor therapist seems to fit. I started thinking about how I explain what I do to my daughter. I often tell her that I go to work to listen to people so that they can feel better. Kind of like going to meet a friend for coffee, or going out to meet friends for lunch. Or maybe it’s just to talk to some guy at the grocery store, or the bus stop. It seems to fit what I do better than either of the titles that have been discussed. So there it is… Instead of calling myself a counselor or a therapist, psychotherapist or clinical social worker, life coach or shrink, I think I’ll just go with Ben Wolf “Just Some Guy”.
Copyright, 2011, Benjamin Wolf. Blog entries and other materials available on Hope & Healing For Life’s website are intended to stimulate thoughts and conversations. If you or someone you know suffers from a mental illness, you are strongly encouraged to seek help from a mental health professional. For further information about this blog, or Hope & Healing For Life, contact Ben Wolf at 612-643-1920 or firstname.lastname@example.org.