What does therapy mean to you?
Jessica Ferrence, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) in Fayetteville, North Carolina, was a little taken aback when a client posed this question to her in a session. However, it sparked Ferrence’s interest and led to some self-reflection.
Therapy is what counselor practitioners do – but it means something different to each professional. It’s a place for the client to heal, grow, be vulnerable, set goals, get to know themselves and many, many more things.
For Ferrence, therapy is a place to uncouple oneself from pain and find strength.
“Therapy puts people in a vulnerable position because we trust clinicians with our deepest, darkest, most painful secrets; things we haven’t shared with our partners or family members or best friends for various reasons. When we feel safe enough to let down our walls — when we share the burden we’ve been shouldering for years or relive the experiences that haunt us in our dreams — we find the strength to find our voice,” says Ferrence, who considered the topic both as a practitioner and recipient of therapy. “Confronting our pain and reclaiming our lives, without fear of judgment or ridicule, can be extremely cathartic. We feel validated, understood and accepted for the first time in a long time — and maybe even ever. And that’s when healing truly begins. That’s when we realize that the power to break free from the grip of our past lies within us. That our vulnerabilities are no longer vulnerabilities, but rather areas of strength that we draw from. [It’s] where the image of our best self has come into focus, and more importantly, that we have the courage to turn that image into a reality.”
CT Online asked a sampling of American Counseling Association members to consider the question “What does therapy mean to you?”
Read their thoughts below, and add your voice to the conversation in the comment section at the bottom of this page.
As a therapist, to me, therapy is…
- An honor and privilege. I continue to be humbled by the fact that my clients share with me their most sacred stories. Often these are trauma stories, in which their deepest pain and vulnerabilities lie in the details they have shared with very few, or only with myself.
- A collaboration between the client and myself. My clients bring their expertise about themselves and their experiences. They bring their stories. They also bring their strength, resiliency and all of themselves – shadow and light. As a therapist, I bring years of clinical experience and education. It is my responsibility to provide a safe, non-judgemental and compassionate space for us to work in. As appropriate, I will offer clients my perspective, as well as evidence-based interventions and information, which they have the right to accept or decline freely, based on what fits for them.
- An opportunity to support clients in reaching their goals. These goals might involve learning how to cope with the aftermath of loss or trauma, or learning how to manage distress related to stress and/or a mental/physical illness. Sometimes we are working together to adjust their understanding and expectations regarding healthy relationships and boundaries.
- Often focused on helping clients to recognize that they deserve to be loved, respected, cherished and protected — and that in life they don’t need to be perfect to be “good enough,” but rather they only need to be perfectly themselves – with all of their disappointments, triumphs, strengths and vulnerabilities. Frequently, I find [therapy] is about helping clients learn to view themselves from the perspective of their wisest and most compassionate selves.
- A place to educate and normalize my client’s reactions and/or symptoms, so that they can get a handle on what it is they are dealing with, what they might expect and strategies they might wish to consider to help them to better manage their distress.
- A place in time where clients do not have to wear masks or say they are “OK” when they are not. A refuge. A place where their distress will be heard and witnessed by another human being, who will not judge, but rather will reflect back their distress without minimizing, and will also hold up a mirror to their strength, courage and tremendous resiliency.
- Shirley Porter, a registered psychotherapist and a registered social worker in London, Ontario, Canada
To me, therapy is for everyone. It is the opportunity for individuals to get the most out of life.
Though traditionally viewed as a medium for helping someone work through a particularly challenging issue or mental health disorder, therapy offers much more. The reality is that, yes, everybody struggles at various points throughout life and may benefit from some additional assistance. People need not wait, however, until life becomes challenging to seek therapy. That is, effective therapy may help people go well beyond attaining life satisfaction to the point of thriving.
Accordingly, the lens through which counselors view clients should be one that extends well beyond problem resolution. By resolving an issue, a person may shift from a bad place to a neutral one. Pushing beyond this is where we really begin to witness existential growth. This is the place where life satisfaction increases, interpersonal relationships improve, goals are achieved and one begins living a life that — until therapy — seemed unattainable.
As counselors we make the unattainable attainable. While I have yet to meet a new client who comes into the office under the premise of “My life is great, and I am here to make it even better,” counselors have the tools to do just that! When working with clients, then, my thought process is to first help address the presenting problem, then facilitate a personal growth process that exceeds previously thought of expectations.
This is one way, of many, that we may continue to destigmatize the therapeutic process. Therapy is not just for individuals with mental illness or problems—it is for everyone.
- Matt Glowiak, a licensed clinical professional counselor (LCPC), certified advanced alcohol and other drug counselor, full-time clinical faculty member at Southern New Hampshire University and co-founder/co-clinical director of counseling speaks in Chicago, Park Ridge and Lake Forest, Illinois.
By definition, therapy is sitting in a room with an essential stranger and discussing your inner most intimate memories, feelings and traumas. Sounds fun right?
So, if therapy isn’t always fun, why do so many people continue to go and find such benefit from the process?
Everyone’s answer to the above question is going to be a bit different but being a therapist myself, and a client within therapy throughout my life and currently; I would like to share my current perspective on what therapy is and why everyone should go.
To me, therapy is a helpful tool to use in order to get to know myself on a deeper, more authentic level.
Within our bodies and minds we all hold the answers to our presenting concerns, but the protective factors and defense mechanisms we’ve built up over the years tend to get in the way of effectively working through our life’s difficulties alone. Therefore, we rely on our coping skills and our loved ones to assist us in times of need. But what happens when your go-to coping skills are no longer working? For a lot of people, it means that you now have to adapt your life and accept the fact that you are now anxious, depressed, alone…fill in the blank — and that’s just the way it is. Fortunately, though this doesn’t have to be the case.
Therapy can be a great way to adapt or change your learned way of life in order to gain a better understanding of your inner workings and what happens when your internal and external worlds collide.
By nature, the process of therapy forces you to be vulnerable. And with vulnerability being the key component to experiencing all emotions (the good, the bad and the ugly) the therapeutic process can assist in the education, understanding, integration and execution of your complex emotions. Therefore, allowing you to take what is learned within the therapeutic hour out into the world and apply it to your life in order to reach our full potential.
In summary, I think that everyone should have access to, and be a client within the therapeutic process sometime throughout their life. It is not something I think people should be in forever, because I do think one of the goals of therapy is teaching clients how to be their own therapists. But I do think everyone should be able to experience the benefits that the unique relationship between client and therapist can have.
- Shannon Gonter, a licensed professional clinical counselor (LPCC) in Louisville, Kentucky who works with young adults and specializes in men’s issues
To me, therapy or counseling is the space in which counselors are able to promote, encourage and support clients in achieving wellness. This space is where clients go to seek out the assistance that they need to improve areas of their lives that contribute to their overall sense of wellness. These areas may include but are not limited to social, cultural, emotional, psychological, spiritual, relational and/or physical.
Therapy is this safe space where I can explore where I am in life, what obstacles I may be facing and what I need to feel whole again. To me, wellness is the experience of wholeness.
- Ashley C. Overman-Goldsmith, an LPC and doctoral student at North Carolina State University and owner and lead therapist at Sea Change Therapy in Williamsburg, Virginia. Her current research centers on honoring the lived experiences of terminally ill clients while helping these clients resolve issues that affect their end-of-life experience.
As a veteran and mental health professional, I often find myself conducting community presentations in order to reduce the stigma against clinical mental health counseling. Often, I find myself having discussions about what therapy is and what it means.
During these conversations, I draw the line between therapy and Therapy. Many find things helpful and calming that they consider “therapeutic,” like gardening, physical exercise, cooking, art, etc. I have clients that say “_____ is my therapy” and that’s great. The meaning in that context is anything that is emotionally soothing or helpful to them.
The other one, though, is Therapy. It is a formal interaction with a licensed mental health professional that is bound by a set of ethical principles, licensure regulations and expectations of professional conduct. I typically use the term clinical mental health counseling, which is more cumbersome but also clearer than just the word “therapy.”
During Therapy, in the clinical sense, a client identifies areas in their life that are not functioning as well as they would like. They then work with a trained professional to develop and work towards goals that will improve that functioning. The professional does not only have training in therapeutic interventions, but they also have training in evidence-based practices that research has proven can help the client resolve their concerns.
Unfortunately, many of the clients I see do not engage in Therapy until the things they have been using to try and manage their problems don’t seem to work. I often describe it this way: if I were a medical doctor, I would be an emergency room doc. The veterans I see come in to my office either right before a crisis, during a crisis, or after a crisis has occurred. Clinical mental health counseling is often seen as a last-ditch effort, a final resort to try before the wheels fall off the wagon.
Instead, I try to encourage clients to consider clinical mental health counseling as a resource to use in order to prevent a crisis, rather than reaching out in response to a crisis. To use Therapy in conjunction with things they consider therapeutic, rather than thinking they are two separate things. For my clients, I have seen this combination help them live the post-military life they both desire and deserve.
- Duane France, a U.S. Army noncommissioned officer (retired), combat veteran and LPC who practices in Colorado Springs, Colorado. In addition to his clinical work, he also writes and speaks about veteran mental health on his blog and podcast at veteranmentalhealth.com
To me, therapy is an opportunity. It seems that with any kind of client, in any type of situation, using any option of modalities, therapy is a gateway to a field of possibilities. I believe one of my greatest gifts to my clients is helping them to facilitate possibilities of thought, feeling and action. With possibilities, clients can see opportunity. Two important words come to mind when I think of opportunity: awareness and empowerment.
Clients come to counseling, voluntarily or involuntarily, but most come with some desire to figure out something. Clients may be looking for specific techniques or just a way to be able to communicate with their partners. They may be court ordered for addictions treatment or just feel like something is not right. Whatever the concern, figuring it out seems to bring insight and peace on some level. Being a licensed professional counselor, certified yoga instructor and an artist has allowed me to provide multiple strategies to foster clients’ inquiry into their presenting concerns. But strategy aside, therapy provides clients opportunities for self-awareness and insight about the world around them.
Additionally, opportunity begets empowerment. One of the key principles of counselor identity is empowerment of our clients to help themselves. I remember working in a community mental health center years ago. Then I was working with children and families who did not have a lot and who had experienced violence, abuse and insecurity in their living situations. I wondered what good could I do in one 60-minute session, and with one meeting per week for each client, especially when I was working in the context of highly distressing situations. Therapy was the act of empowering my clients to find options in how they reflected on themselves and responded to their environments.
With options available, clients can find freedom to choose. Feeling free to make decisions – intentional decisions – is one of the most empowering experiences for anyone. Being able to foster opportunity for my clients means that they have a chance to feel their personal power to make their own choices.
I would say that my primary job as a counselor and counselor educator is being an options-maker or a possibilities-creator! I believe it is in therapy where opportunities are born!
- Megan M. Seaman, an LPC, certified yoga instructor and assistant professor in the Counseling and Art Therapy Department at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio. She also maintains a private practice in Beachwood, Ohio where she works with children, youth and families using creative arts healing and yoga therapy strategies.
To me, therapy is providing an open space for people to have the opportunity to discuss life events or problems that are impacting their daily lives. This is a place where someone feels heard. Our lives are often so busy that we don’t listen.
Counseling provides this safe place for someone to “unpack” life problems and look at them with someone who is truly listening and is available for unbiased support. Therapy offers the opportunity for people to discuss and explore ways to improve their lives and find resources to enhance their quality of life. Thus, they find the strength to manage difficult life events such as trauma, illness and adjustment to disability.
Therapy is also the passionate pursuit of learning and effectively using practice-proven and evidence-based practices to help with the healing process. But, it also requires a counselor to have the courage to question, redirect, and, yes, confront a client to keep them on the path to wellness and wholeness.
This is hard work! But it is an honor to be trusted by someone who doesn’t know us to listen, care and support them during their most vulnerable times.
- Judy A. Schmidt, a certified rehabilitation counselor (CRC), licensed professional counselor associate (LPCA) and clinical assistant professor in the Clinical Rehabilitation and Mental Health Counseling program in the Department of Allied Health Sciences, School of Medicine, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is the rehabilitation counselor for the acute inpatient rehabilitation unit for UNC Hospital in Chapel Hill.
To me, therapy is a communion of two souls who make an agreement to walk alongside each other for a part of this journey. Therapy calls us to bear witness to another person’s healing process by helping them to come back home to their true and authentic self. It reminds us of our wholeness and asks us to remove any barriers that prevent us from seeing this wholeness.
Therapy reminds us that we cannot have the shadow without the light and that the shadow only exists because of the light. It is about quieting the ego and the mind in order to get us out of our heads and into our hearts and bodies.
Therapy involves being truly seen and heard by another person to help us remember that we are not alone on this journey. It is about accepting someone for who they are (battle scars and all) while also seeing their infinite potential.
- Jessica Smith, an LPC, licensed addiction counselor, yoga teacher and owner of Radiance Counseling in Denver, Colorado
Bethany Bray is a senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.