What are the differences between counselling and psychotherapy?

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“I have read it is helpful to talk to someone about the problems I am experiencing:  but what are the differences between a counsellor and a psychotherapist?”

This is the very question I faced when I started my therapy journey over sixteen years ago.  I knew I needed some help to process the storm of feelings – grief, loss, and anger – which engulfed me when my mother died.  But I just didn’t know who might be best placed to help me. What exactly were the similarities and differences between counselling and psychotherapy?

People use the words ‘counsellor’ and ‘psychotherapist’ interchangeably, but the offering can vary significantly. It can be daunting to take the step to see someone. These terms can create unnecessary confusion, particularly if you are already experiencing substantial distress. This blog outlines simple explanations of some of the differences between counselling and psychotherapy, to help you make an informed decision.   Depending on what you hope to achieve from working with a trained professional, this should give you a better sense of who might best meet your mental health needs.

What is counselling and when might it be more helpful for me?

Broadly, counselling tends to address specific, current problems or difficult life events that result in mild to moderate difficulties in your everyday functioning.  For example, you may be struggling with a relationship break-up or problems at work. It may be more helpful to work this through with someone other than a friend or family member.  You might think of this in terms of problems of which you are aware or conscious.

Counselling focuses on reinforcing personal agency by supporting you, the client, to solve or feel more empowered to manage your problems.  This is what is known as a ‘therapeutic goal’.  Counsellors may use a range of approaches. This includes encouraging you to focus on thoughts and feelings about the situation to achieve greater insight. Alternatively, it may be more about developing your internal resilience and resources including more healthy or beneficial coping strategies. 

In a nutshell, the goal of counselling is to help you become more autonomous, improve emotional and mental health, and be able to better manage or overcome specific and current issues.

How many counselling sessions do I need?

This is a common question clients often ask.  My recommendation is a minimum of six sessions to give the therapeutic relationship – between counsellor and client – time to build.  It also provides a reasonable time frame to assess your progress towards your therapeutic goal.  You can decide if you need more time to work on your goal. You may also choose to shift your focus to explore other problems you are facing.

What is psychotherapy and when might it be more helpful for me?

Psychotherapy focuses on more chronic or recurring problems. For example, you may find it difficult to maintain long-term intimate relationships or regularly experience interpersonal difficulties, at work or college.  There is a greater emphasis on more deep-seated issues – emotional difficulties or entrenched and long-held thought and behaviour patterns.  These include adverse childhood experiences, relationships with parents and caregivers, and unconscious ways of being and behaving. You might think of this as an unconscious or subconscious problem which sits outside of your awareness. 

Depending on their training, psychotherapists draw on different techniques to complement talk therapy. These include role play, guided imagery, movement, and creative interventions including drawing or sand tray work.  Some specific therapies you may have heard of that draw on some of these techniques include Humanistic Therapy, Gestalt, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), Psychodynamic Therapy and Eye Movement and Desensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR)

To summarise, psychotherapy provides a catalyst for personal growth and deep change. You experience yourself and your relationships with others – partners, children, parents, siblings, friends, and colleagues – in different ways.  Psychotherapy also enables an openness within you, unlocking your potential to live a richer and more fulfilling life.

How many sessions of psychotherapy do I need?

This varies in relation to your individual needs and what you are hoping to address through therapy.  However, given the nature of the work, psychotherapy is more long-term.  Generally, this means a minimum of six months.  This is because it takes time to build up the trust between you and your therapist so that you feel safe enough to be able to access these deeper-held emotions, memories, and experiences.

What do counsellors and psychotherapists have in common?

In practice, although there are many differences between counselling and psychotherapy, there is also considerable overlap.   Practitioners from both disciplines create a confidential, containing, non-judgemental space which allows you, the client to explore what is troubling you. 

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Yet something that initially presents as a current, specific problem, may in fact be the outward manifestation of something more chronic.

Therefore, you may want to look for someone who has the training and experience to provide both counselling and psychotherapy.  They will be able to continue with you on your journey, should you want to go beyond the current presenting problem.   

Take the time to do your research.  Start by looking at registered counsellor or psychotherapist profiles listed on one of the main regulatory bodies in the UK. British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP),UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP), National Counselling and Psychotherapy Society (NCPS),  British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies (BABCP)

Most counsellors or therapists suggest an initial free-of-charge 20-30 minute session.  Take them up on their offer. You can explain what you are looking for. You also get a sense of whether they are someone you can trust and work with.  There are some key questions to ask a potential counsellor or psychotherapist that you can find here

Whether you are looking for a counsellor, a psychotherapist, or someone who can do both, there are two crucial questions to ask yourself. How comfortable do you feel talking with them? Do you feel they are really listening to you and hearing you? Counselling or psychotherapy is an investment in yourself. You deserve to find someone who is ready to walk with you on your journey, at your pace, to a more fulfilling and enriching life.

©Mary Murphy-Diprose, 2023

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