Counselor Vs. Support Group

A couple of people have suggested that I go to a counselor, recently, and I figured I would post my reasons as to why I am currently choosing to go to a “support group” instead. I’m not sure what “support group” even means but for the sake of this discussion I am referring to a group of people who meet that have a similar “problem.” When I refer to “counselor” I am referring to any session with a qualified professional with a one on one methodology. Here is my assessment of what a week in each would look like.

Counseling:

  • One one-on-one session each week.
  • Do your “homework” and be prepared for your next session to make it the most productive.

counselling_vancouver

Support group:

  • One or more group sessions each week.
  • One meeting with your sponsor/mentor each week
  • Coffee/breakfast with network of other members after meeting.
  • Phone calls to sponsor or other group members at any time on a need basis
  • Additional one on one meetings with other participants of the program on a need basiscounseling

This is not meant to be a persuasive discussion. I am just laying out the two options as I understand them. Here are a few bullet points as to why I am currently engaging in the latter.

  • I have to chose one or the other. This is due to time and emotional constraints at this time.
  • The “support group” model resembles and supports so much more of our value system. It feels much more like a network of people that we are in relationship with. If I want to engage in someone further I can invite them over for dinner and they can meet the family. From what I understand, this is not the norm with counselors.
  • The second model seems more “holistic.” There are so many different ways to connect and learn. As long as there are people who are “ahead of me” in the program I have a wide range of people to chose from in regards to getting advise and help. I can chose based upon schedule, geographic proximity, personality, or commonalities.
  • It is free. Yes, I am a cheapskate. Beyond that though, I think there is an element of awkwardness for me when I know that someone is listening to me and they are getting paid for it. Part of me never really knows how much of me is a client and how much is a person. What’s the difference? Who knows? Not me. In the support group I don’t even have to think about that.
  • Ongoing relationship. When I quit the program I still plan on engaging in the relationships that I am building. I’m not sure if a therapist or counselor would want to hang out for coffee 3 years after I’m done paying them. I hate the idea of “temporary” relationships.
  • I am introspective and motivated. I think this really helps with me choosing the second model. I can not think of a day, since my first meeting, that I have not been challenged or motivated. There has been significant life change and from what I can gather that is the goal of either. I would not be surprised if the “degree” or “qualifications” of the counselor would make the process more through, or efficient but right now I am willing to forgo either of those for the above stated benefits.  If I ever stop being challenged or motivated or have “hit a wall” in the productivity of learning about myself or my issues I think a qualified counselor would be a valuable asset.

I hope that offers some help for people to understand my own process. I am not saying either is better nor am I defending one over the other. I would be really surprsed if I do not engage in both somewhere down the road. I am really new to this whole world and would love to hear ongoing thoughts of people who have expereinced either.

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28 thoughts

  1. That isn’t at all what counseling would look like. Counseling doesn’t involve any homework or goals to make it productive.

    You just “compared” the two even though you’ve never experienced one of them.

  2. I just saw your bit about temporary relationships. I’ve been with my therapist for 4 years and also am currently in a group setting with her and those relationships are all definitely not temporary. The whole point of the group is to benefit from these relationships. So having experienced both I can’t express how much both kinds (group and one-on-one therapy) have benefited me.

  3. by “homework” I’m merely referring to the fact that what you are “learning” would apply and change your life outside of the session at home or in “real life”

    yeah, I agree. It seems like they would both be beneficial.

  4. Yeah. By that definition it would apply in all areas like you’re experiencing with your 12-step.

    I’ve been wondering recently if what you felt you were missing discipleship-wise would be something you could get from a male therapist. I know there would be the issue of paying them and all that entails, but I keep thinking that my guy therapist would be someone you would really like talking to. He really gets it.

  5. Stephanie, hmmmm….

    Foster, that’s a great question. I think it comes down to what “counseling” is or what it’s purpose is. From my perspective any type of these avenues does 2 things. Shines light into dark areas and provides an impetus for positive change…aka growth. Right now my “sponsor” is very qualified at doing both of these things. There may be a time when this is no longer true at which time any number of other “methods” will be helpful.

    I’m interested to hear from stephanie or others is there another purpose besides the two that I mentioned that you think counseling/therapy/group is for?

  6. I think most people would call a counselor more qualified to help you heal and grow because they are thoroughly trained. Sponsors might be able to help you with your particular problem, but aren’t trained in any way, other than experience and might tell you to go about things in completely wrong ways. Just because they know how they got through something they might not know how to help you. Everyone’s different.

    Not that counselors are always right, I just think that’s the main difference between the two. I’ve had lots of root canals, but it doesn’t make me qualified to fix one for you.

    But you and I come from opposite ends of the “experience” vs. “training” spectrum.

  7. Rainbow, My viewpoints about “addictions” have been in constant evolution but based upon my current definition I think that your statement about “everyone’s different” is less true than I once thought. I used to get caught up in the symptoms (alcohol, drugs, sex, co-dependency, food, shopping, etc) but I think that I am starting to realize that there is a very identical underlying theme to it all. With that context, I’m starting to think that someone’s qualifications are based upon their ability to understand the “human condition”. Sometimes the best training for this is to go to school. Sometimes the best training for this is to understand yourself.

  8. I guess I’m working from a more general idea about everyone being different than just in terms of addictions. I still believe that most general advice (like self-help books, ect.) is only applicable to a select few people and therefore dangerous because it claims to be applicable to everyone.

    I’m still prone to distrust 12 step programs because of their staggering failure rate, but we’ve already talked about possible reasons for that. It’s not really fair to judge a system that hinges personal involvement when half of the people attending were forced to attend. It will be interesting to talk more once I obtain my own sponsor (does alanon do those?) and/or get to know myself better, because my opinion will probably change. Besides, this is all just theory. I don’t have the money for a counselor right now, but I need to do something, so a support group is the way to go.

    Lots of my ideas concerning therapy come from therapists. They probably need to believe that counseling is the best way or they would be out of work. I am prone to believe people more if I know they have been trained… that’s just how modern I am.

  9. I think that one of the most powerful ‘counselors’ can be someone who has been where you’re at and has been able to grow and move past that point. They have something to offer that is different, but I think equally as powerful and effective as a professional counselor. Now, I am not saying that professional counseling isn’t also an effective tool because I’m sure it is. But we can’t discount this other ‘form’ of ‘counseling.’

  10. rainbow, i’ll hear from you in 6 months.

    kami, i love you

    rainbow, i love you too.

    kami & rainbow, it’s weird writing and responding to comments on my blog from both of you while we’re all in the same room.

  11. I have been in counseling off and on for a little over 3 years. I started going because I was struggling with depression over infertility and I wanted some help with it. What came out of it was that I had many other issues that needed dealt with that I wanted guidance on. I absolutely love my counselor and would recommend her to anyone. While our relationship happens in a box so to speak, I do feel that it has grown over time and that she really cares for me as a person and not just a paying client. I believe that any counselor worth their weight would be able to strike a balance between maintaining appropriate boundaries, but still building a real relationship. I am able to call her if needed, but that might not be the norm in the counseling realm.

    I have also participated in short-term group therapy. I really liked this as well since it sometimes gets out other stuff that may only come about with group dynamics. This was a group without professionals leading it, they had just been trained in a method and gone through it as participants. In some ways this helped since they had “been there”, but a couple of times it hindered things since some of their past junk got mixed in with some of their leading the group, which led to some personal confusion and heartache for me. However, I think this can also happen with counselors. It depends on the stability of either.

    The main questions I would use to in determining what type of experience would benefit me the most at any given place in my life would be:

    1. Do I want ongoing relationships with the people helping me deal with my issue? Or do I need some distinct boundaries and closure from them?

    2. Do I want to share this with others or is this a private thing for me at the time? (Yes, I sometimes don’t share everything with everyone. That may be a shock for some to hear.)

    3. Do I need more attention than the group experience would give me? Any good group experience involves you listening and giving to others, and there are times when my healing just needs to be about me and no one else.

    4. Do I need to surround myself with people who have been there and understand? Sometimes you just need to know you are not the only one who feels a certain way and being in a group of people who struggle with the same issues or circumstances can be liberating and so comforting.

    All in all, I believe both have good merits and it depends on what your goals or needs are at the time. No method is going to work unless you are invested in it, so that matters as well.

    I think it is awesome you are doing the SA and hope that your experience continues to be challenging and life-changing!

  12. You guys are awesome. Maybe if I were in the same room with you I would also be in on this electronic discussion. We might even speak verbally.

    I’ve never done 12-step groups so I can’t say much about how I feel toward their methodology or effectiveness. I did do five 1-hr sessions with a therapist, though. The payment thing was weird at first, but I got over it pretty quick. Especially because the the sessions were really helpful. I appreciated the fact that she was a good listener, patient, had no other agendas, other than wanting to help. Alot like a physical doctor checking for physical problems – there checking for emotional issues which are usually way more complex. And there was no “homework,” other than that your “realizing” or “discovering” more about yourself. It’s kinda hard to describe in English, all rational and all. Maybe I could describe it in tongues.

  13. Heather, I really like your thoughts but especially your line:
    “No method is going to work unless you are invested in it, so that matters as well. ”

    That’s the thing that I’m starting to realize more and more. No one can “fix” you. You have to be ready for surgery. There are no shortcuts.

    Will, cool story. All I’m referring to when I referred to “homework” is the “realizing” or “discovering” or thinking or meditating or processing or deciding or whatever it is that goes on for the other 167 hours a week that you are not with the counselor. Let’s get together for lunch or coffee or whatever sometime soon. I’d like to hear more about your story.

  14. i’m a big believer in both. currently, i’m part of a weekly 12-step group and in therapy.

    my thoughts: i benefit from both for different reasons.

    I’ll start with the 12-step.

    Here, I get to hear from people engaging in their own stories– I get to be quiet and reflect, be reminded, be moved. But I also get to share. There’s something you lose in a one-on-one therapy session– a multiplicity of voices that give space and understanding due to overlapping themes. (depending upon the group.) Language of the “higher power” is common, which fits within my own theological framework.

    As for counseling, (I am a mental health counselor, so I am a bit biased.) 🙂

    Yes, it takes time. Yes, the relationship is weird. (one day i won’t see my counselor anymore– and she knows more about me than my closest friends know about me!) However, the last thing I would want is for my counselor to “come over for dinner and meet the family.” It’s hard to explain. She is my therapist, I don’t want her to be my friend– or else she would cease to help me as a therapist. That would be tragic.

    As for the ‘element of awkwardness’ if you pay for therapy. This was super difficult for me when I first entered. But not paying would be even worse. Just like any other relationship, it is a give-and-take. Paying a fee highly motivates me. It is ‘my’ time– but more specifically, ‘my’ time with another. There’s writing in a journal, or meditating, praying, etc… but something that you get from counseling is reflection from another human about your story– which 12 step does not do. (or isn’t supposed to do.)

    There is also a question of why one goes to therapy. Some want homework. And it can be all about changing thinking and behavior. There are some therapists that offer that. (this usually falls under ‘cognitive-behavioral therapy’) But my counselor has never given me homework. And it’s not about changing my thinking and behavior– although hopefully that will happen as well. But it goes deeper than that: feelings, learned relational patterns, engagement in early history, possibility for regression etc. There are a whole slough of different kind of therapies, (and therapists!) but I am drawn to a more relational, psychodynamic, object-relational, attachment therapy. This may be gobbledygook to you, but it might be helpful/interesting.

  15. wow jamie, thanks for the feedback. you were one of the few people who have been through both and provided the pros and cons of either. pretty valuable. i would love to talk to you more about it sometime.

  16. Do yourself a favor and stay the heck away from 12-step groups.

    You wrote:

    “I think that your statement about “everyone’s different” is less true than I once thought. I used to get caught up in the symptoms (alcohol, drugs, sex, co-dependency, food, shopping, etc) but I think that I am starting to realize that there is a very identical underlying theme to it all.”

    This is clearly based on the conflated, unscientific 12-step programs that claim to be a cure to all of these ills.

    12-step works by admitting you’re “powerless,” turning your will over to a “higher power” (which magically, toward the end of the steps, turns out to be a “God” that you “pray to” to remove all of your “defects of character”), confessing everything you’ve done wrong, making amends, and so on.

    Can’t we do better than that? Does anyone here other than Ben honestly think that praying to a “higher power” (later called God in the same set of steps) and engaging in confession is productive for EVERYONE who happens to have a problem using excessive amounts of alcohol or drugs, or for that matter shopping, etc?

    Further, twelve-step SPECIFICALLY ignores scientific studies, etc, as it “has no opinion on outside issues.” IT DOESN’T CHANGE WITH SCIENCE, or for that matter much at all from the original, hardcore Christian Bill Wilson’s AA.

    So if your definition of the “human condition” specifies that humans all need to pray and confess their sins and admit they’re powerless, sure, 12-step works great.

    Here are some excellent resources for people who want to investigate 12-step critically and look beyond:

    http://www.rational.org
    http://www.morerevealed.com
    Jack Trimpey, The Small Book

    I may sound militant or overly peeved, but I am disgusted at the violations of the Constitution in the US that take place in the name of AA/NA (people are sent to them by local and state gov.; they ARE religious programs), the self-perpetuating cycle of “powerlessness” in 12-step, and–most of all–the conditioning during times of extreme distress (namely the point at which one becomes clean or sober, which is bound to be physiologically and psychologically stressful) that one must attend 12-step or one will relapse and die.

  17. I’m sure he does. I’m fine with people feeling bitter. I’ve been bitter. But when your bitterness starts to spread to yourself and other people like poison that’s when it becomes destructive.

  18. I’m not so sure, really. I think he’s just expressing himself and it’s not necessarily destructive, in this instance anyway. I think he’s giving us a gift, an opportunity to engage him.

  19. Aww thanks!
    When I hear people talking like he did I think they’re speaking to their pain. It could be destructive but I didn’t see it that way, so I don’t know.
    (I heart Kami.)

  20. conwict: actually, the local and state gov do not require anyone to attend 12-step groups. it is that these are what often fit into this category. I sign off people’s court-ordered papers for free peer support groups at my mental health counseling internship. These are not 12 step groups, and we do not recite the serenity prayer, etc.

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