Advocating for Oneself in Counseling
Most people come to counseling with an understanding that a counselor is not a guru or life coach. The job of a counselor is not to give a client some path to happiness, but instead to be a supporting character on a client’s own path that they dictate. Unlike going to a medical doctor, counseling is more about a conversation as opposed to getting told what you need to do to feel better. Still, there is undoubtedly a power dynamic that naturally forms in the counseling office. The counselor is indeed the “expert” on mental health, meaning that they have more formal training, knowledge, experience and access to information regarding human psychology different than the average person. Because of this, some clients find it difficult to push back on the things their counselor is saying, or even struggle to correct misconceptions a counselor may have about a client. Becoming an advocate for oneself in the medical world is a huge advantage and leads to improved care and experience with medical providers. In the same way, being an advocate for oneself as a client of a counselor will enhance the counseling experience as well as lead to improved outcomes.
Expertise in Mental Health
There are a lot of things in life that we can become experts in. For most of these things, expertise comes with an expectation that what you learned will apply to most every setting and situation. For instance, if you are an expert in cars, you can expect to be able to have a good understanding of most every make and model of car with some rare exceptions perhaps. If a doctor is an expert in the workings of the kidney, commonly knowns as a nephrologist, we wouldn’t expect them to struggle to understand any disease of the kidney regardless of who has it, where they got it, and at what age. This is where mental health expertise varies quite a bit. Mental health is far too individualistic for someone to be an expert in the same way as a car expert or nephrologist. Of course counselor’s can have specialties and a ton of knowledge, but in the day to day on goings of each person’s mind there are far too many factors and fluid changes to claim to be an expert on someone’s mental health. There is also the fact that mental health is far too unique to truly have someone be an expert on someone else’s. For instance, I believe I have a great grasp on depression as a disorder. When it comes to the common symptoms, progression, treatments, and social impact I can confidently claim to be an expert. However, if a person I have never met enters my office with depression I do not claim to be an expert on how they are experiencing depression, nor even what depression means for them. We use the diagnostic and clinical terms for things like depression so we can speak some kind of common language and get an overall impression as to what a person is experiencing and how to treat it. The individualistic characteristics of a person’s depression escape these definitions completely and it is not possible to truly have expertise in them outside of experiencing them.
How to advocate in counseling
In any decent counseling relationship, the client has full confidence that the counselor is there to help them work through their problems and has their best interest at heart. However, even in a good counseling relationship there is likely to be times where the client disagrees with the counselors assessment or plan of action to solve a problem. A client may be hesitant to express their concerns because of a few reasons: they don’t want to offend the person they know worked hard to gain their education, they are unsure themselves how they are feeling/how to progress, or even that they naturally have a hard time confronting others when they disagree with something. It is important not just for the client, but for the counselor, to have the client push back when there is a conflict or disagreement so resolution can be found. This is also a great opportunity for clients who do struggle with speaking up for themselves to practice it in a safe environment. Some things that a client can remind themselves of when a situation like this arises are:
- Counselors are trained to deal with conflict or pushback by not turning it into a debate or argument, and instead letting the client guide the process while only confronting contradictions in the client’s thinking to help them get to a good answer for themselves.
- Counselors, on average, should be less worried about their “expertise” based egos than some other professionals, as the human mind is far too complex for anyone to truly believe they fully understand it.
- Counselors are just people like everyone else. There is no true mystical or ascended quality of a counselor. We have our own problems, struggles, contradictions etc. so we understand that we will be wrong at times.
Advocating for yourself in a counseling session can seem intimidating, but as long as you are expressing your concerns in the context of trying to help yourself solve a problem a counselor will likely be receptive to your challenging of their opinions. There have been times in my own sessions where I have been far off the mark in an analysis of a situation a client was expressing. The longer a client lets this misunderstanding go, the more off track we can get from solving an issue. It is more than welcome for a client to contradict my take on an issue they have presented, even so far as to say that what I may have seen in many other clients in the past is not applicable in this particular setting. It can be a balancing act, as it is unlikely that there will be nothing that can help a client. However, it is more than likely that not everything that has helped previous clients will help a new client due to context and details that are different.
If you are seeking counseling with counselors who welcome clients advocating for themselves in therapy and are open to being challenged, please contact Life Enhancement Counseling Services today at 407-443-8862 to schedule an appointment with one of our experienced mental health counselors.