Possibilities for Online Counselling
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Creating a world of possibilities for Online Counselling
When I tell people I’m an online counsellor, their reactions are understandably mixed. Occasionally their eyes light up with curiosity (generally folks who work in tech) and their mouths spill out a barrage of fascinated questions.
More usually they look confused. Furrowing their brows and cocking their head to one side they’ll say ‘so… is that on Skype or what?’
When I explain that not only do I provide video and phone but also IM and email online counselling, sometimes they can be downright hostile. I receive harsh words spat in a sharp tone: ‘that’s no way to do therapy!’
I mention all these nuances, because as you can imagine, most of them are invisible when working online. You can’t make eye contact, you can’t always feel energy. If you are writing you can’t see someone, you can’t feel their wry sense of humour or their dead-set seriousnesses.
But does that mean we can’t be with someone therapeutically without being face to face in a physical room?
Reread my above descriptions and notice if you feel anything while reading them. Were you reminded of a fond person who knows nothing about what you do, but is your biggest and most curious fan brimming with questions? Were you transported to a time when you were criticised, questioned or even abused?
Turns out feeling stuff through writing isn’t so mysterious at all.
Experiencing people judging what I do reminds me of the judgments my clients do not want to experience in therapy with me. If they’re in therapy with me, they’re there because they relate to me through my website and blog and videos, and they want to do counselling online for one reason or another.
They don’t want to experience me as a person who doesn’t have faith in their ability to heal and arrive at a preferred place via what’s available online.
They don’t want to meet with someone who thinks The Internet is a 2nd class citizen.
So while it takes effort and consideration and creativity to make something with these new spaces, it’s important to think of ourselves as pioneers within this internet community. We’re advocates for The Internet. We accept the shortcomings as par-for-the-course like we would in any area of life, and we elevate what is available to help the people who are showing up.
Here are some ways to go about that:
- Let video clients know in advance that the lack of eye-contact can mean you might miss something, and then brainstorm how you might overcome this potential issue. Give your clients some control over the actions they’d like to take! Sometimes this can even be an advantage, as you are actually giving a client more ‘permission’ to tell you when you do not understand something. They can say ‘I think you missed something important because you couldn’t see my eyes’ instead of having to tell you that you weren’t listening in the way they wanted.
- Similarly, brainstorm with your writing clients how they will alert you when they’re coming into difficult feeling territory. You might use emoji’s if that feature is available, or just a symbol on the keyboard.
- Reach out to the Internet in ‘real time’: grab a gif or an image that the client can use to alert you to challenging territory without any effort.
- Additionally, images can be used in the most positive and incredible ways. You might be able find a picture or a quote that supports a tentative new narrative a client is unfolding. Or simply to illustrate an externalisation of a ‘feeling’ or to more richly support a described experience.
- The Internet can help people connect in ‘real time’ to other people and places. It can be a little frustrating ‘in the room’ when you know of a support group or forum that will help someone, yet the client just doesn’t have the energy to take up new pathways when ‘out of the room’. Online you do it alongside them and scaffold from there: ask what they think of a story on the forum you’re linking them in with. You are not doing this for the purpose of ‘teaching’ because that’s not what therapy is about, but if someone associates their relationship with you with a positive place online: say a forum for survivors of family violence, they are much more likely to spend time there.
The scary (and exciting) part is that we don’t have a blueprint for how to do this work online. I hold an umbrella of Professional Counsellor and Narrative Therapy over my head and the head of the client, but everything we actually do under there is always in a state of creation.
Truthfully, there are times when I must apologise because I hadn’t properly planned for ‘what we will do IF’.
There are times when I need to repair the relationship.
There are times when I need to stop, assess what I could have done differently, and move forward with a commitment to getting better at using these tools to facilitate the most healing and beneficial therapeutic relationship.
But isn’t that what therapy is about at it’s very core? We aren’t providing concrete answers- if we had them no one would have any problems! We are building healing relationships. So we need to be ok in the not-knowing and curious in the not-knowing.
Most importantly, we need to meet clients where they are at and bring them along into a space that is welcoming, hopeful and as safe as possible.
Yes, this is a challenge in this ‘new world’ of online therapy. But if you are honest with yourself, you know it is a challenge ‘on the couch’ as well.
It’s important to remember that even if it feels less natural for you to be working with people online, for some folks it’s a place they feel much more at home. From the Internet has arisen a platform for all sorts of disenfranchised people to speak and be heard, to gather together and form communities around chat rooms, hashtags and social media. Therefore if you are providing space for people to connect with you in the ways that feel most possible and most healing to THEM then you are already halfway there.
Now is the time when we should be inviting curiosity about what IS possible and sharing all the ways we make these spaces work for ourselves, and above all our clients, who bravely turn up for counselling every week.
Because I think, quite honestly, the possibilities are endless.
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