I am in favour of any interaction that provides an individual with the time and space to say what’s on their mind without being judged and to give that person room to breathe and hopefully find life a little easier to cope with. It can be difficult, though, to understand the difference between one type of helping behaviour and another, particularly if they appear to be very similar and share a common aim. Emotional support and counselling are two such helping ‘activities’ that could be easily confused.
Let’s take a look at emotional support first. We all need emotional support in some way or another and in different quantities depending on what is going on in our lives. Providing emotional support is not necessarily a specific aim of the things we may do to be there for someone but can often be a positive result, for example, spending time with someone, cooking them dinner, helping someone to clean their house, helping to solve a problem: these are social and practical examples of ways we can help others but which may also enhance an individual’s feelings of wellbeing, their ability to cope, and lift their overall mood. Emotional support is an important part of many professions such as social worker, carer, doctor, and teacher and so on. This is because being emotionally healthy is just one element of what makes a healthy person – inside and out.
To try and define emotional support more specifically, it is when we listen and offer empathy and compassion to someone when they are communicating how they are feeling to us; it is about being non-judgemental and allowing someone to express themselves in a safe and supported relationship or interaction. It is about not imposing our views or opinions on someone, but letting them feel accepted for expressing the way they feel – warts and all. Some organisations and charities focus on improving emotional health and supporting people through difficult times by providing trained volunteers who listen non-judgementally, such as Samaritans and SANE.
So how is this any different to counselling? Emotional support is an important and valuable aspect of working with a professional counsellor, but a counsellor is able to offer more still. As mentioned before, other professionals, while offering emotional support as part of a wider role, may not have a specific focus on enhancing an individual’s emotional wellbeing whereas a counsellor’s role is focused on helping an individual to explore and understand their thoughts and feelings. A counsellor is also able to offer an ongoing relationship with an individual: this can help you to really engage in a process of working through your feelings and challenges in life, unlike, for example, an emotional support helpline which although offers potentially life-saving support in many cases (and particularly during crises) does not tend to offer a one-to-one relationship with a sense of consistency and continuity. Research has shown that a good therapeutic relationship between a counsellor and a client is the strongest predictor for a positive outcome for the client, regardless of which counselling approach (i.e. person-centred, cognitive-behavioural therapy, psychodynamic) the counsellor uses, which suggests having a therapeutic relationship is more effective than one-off sessions or sporadic encounters with many different people.
Professional, qualified counsellors will also have spent a substantial amount of time studying different theories of counselling and therapy, as well as having some knowledge of the main schools of thought in psychology such as humanistic psychology, behaviourism, cognitive psychology and positive psychology, to name but a few. This education allows a counsellor to view your experiences not only from your perspective but from a theoretical one too, which can add depth to your experience of counselling and self-discovery. Theories of counselling/therapy/psychology offer a scientific understanding of: the structure of self and personality; the process of change that occurs in therapy; the influence of thoughts on behaviour and emotions (and vice versa); and the role of genetics, biology and environment on an individual’s development and subsequent experiences of the world around them. This knowledge can be used both implicitly and explicitly in the counselling relationship, perhaps according to the counsellor’s own theoretical preference and approach, as well as what each individual client is presenting with.
So how do we know ‘at what point is emotional support not enough?’ and ‘when should I have counselling?’ Very often, people seek out counselling because their emotions have become too much for them to cope with on their own. While those around us may be doing their best to help, sometimes it can be better to speak to someone who is more separate from your day-to-day life and able to view you and your situation with an open mind and no preconceptions. Emotional support can sometimes be enough in a crisis, but where you feel you need more consistent support over a number of weeks, this may be where you decide to have counselling. As mentioned previously, counselling not only offers you support, but an opportunity to explore and understand what you are going through in more depth. This means you can express yourself, giving you more breathing space to help you cope with day-to-day life, but also allow you the time to explore deeper issues that may be impacting on your ability to cope long-term.
Copyright © 2015 Laura Hughes (Updated Feb 2017)
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