Psychotherapy or Counselling? What is the difference?

There is no straightforward answer to this question that everyone can agree on!  This brief article discusses the situation in the UK, but in the US and mainland Europe, there are different perspectives, and the legal and licensing requirements are different.

Counsellors train for two to four years, and are not always required to experience personal counselling for themselves. Some counselling is more short-term and focused on a specific problem or issue.  However the differences between different psychotherapy and counselling practitioners are just as much to do with the model used, and the individual practitioner’s  personality, training and experience.  There is also a category of “psychotherapeutic counsellor” where the counsellor brings in an awareness of personality development, existential factors and models of spiritual growth.  Different organisations claim these terms in different ways, and it is difficult to reach agreement on standards – however there are sets of competencies and benchmarks for what a practitioner within these professions should be able to do.

Psychotherapists train for a minimum of four years, usually more, at MA level, and are required to undergo personal psychotherapy of the type, depth and longevity that they will be offering to their clients.  One of the reasons for doing their own psychotherapeutic work is both to provide the experience of being a client, and also to work through their own personal issues so that they can keep them separate from those of their clients.  This is important when working at depth with sensitive relational material, so the psychotherapist can recognise whether their subtle countertransference responses to a client are to do with the client or are their own material.

Psychotherapists have additional training in mental health, and at the very least are trained to recognise mental health conditions, to communicate with mental health professionals, and they also experience an observational mental health placement.  For clients where there is a mental health aspect, psychotherapy may be preferred. Psychotherapists are trained to conduct detailed assessments, and an assessment process occurs near the beginning of the work.

A psychotherapist will look at your difficulty or problem from several different angles, and this will include developing an understanding of how it has developed over time.  Thus psychotherapy involves an exploration of your life story,  especially your significant relationships from childhood,  This is not in order to dwell on the past per se, but to understand how your conditioning and internalised relating may still be colouring  your day to day experience.  When someone finds themselves in repeating situations, for example choosing the same type of partner over and over again, sometimes the keys to unlocking the understanding of this lie in the past. It is only possible to change  deep emotional and personality  patterning when you become fully aware of it, and  when you become aware of it, then the choices for change fully open up.  This type of work really is best done with a psychotherapist – or a highly trained counsellor – rather than on your own, as these issues are all relational, and also need a present relationship within which they can become apparent and be worked with.

Psychotherapy does not however just focus on the past, as there is emphasis on being present here and now, and  the momentum is forward-looking, in terms of encouraging you to reach for your potential.  A psychotherapist will “hold” your potentials for you, as you work to clear the conditions that prevent you from being happy, balanced and fulfilled.

There is also an understanding that your present life is part of a wider network or constellation of ancestry, culture, family, history, personality, identity  and so much more besides.

In truth when finding a person to work with, you need to find a person who you feel you can trust,    and can go to all the places within you where you need to be met.

You can read more about counselling on the website of the BACP (British Association for Counselling), and psychotherapy on UKCP (United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy)