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As somebody seeking help for an emotional or psychological problem, you may very well be confused by the myriad of terms used to describe the kinds of help available. You may hear about counselling, therapy, psychotherapy, psychology or even mentoring and coaching. I hope that this article will provide some clarity on two of these terms - psychotherapy and counselling - and what differences, as a client, you might expect to experience in terms of how your difficulty is understood and what are seen as the goals of the therapy.

Definitions of psychotherapy and counselling

To start with, some definitions may help to understand the nature of both psychotherapy and counselling, and also to see some of the similarities and differences between them.

What is counselling? 

Counselling is the skilled and principled use of relationship to facilitate self-knowledge, emotional acceptance and growth and the optimal development of personal resources. The overall aim is to provide an opportunity to work towards living more satisfyingly and resourcefully. Counselling relationships will vary according to need but may be concerned with developmental issues, addressing and resolving specific problems, making decisions, coping with crisis, developing personal insights and knowledge, working through feelings of inner conflict or improving relationships with others

And what is psychotherapy? 

Psychotherapy is the comprehensive and intentional engagement between therapist and client for the healing, growth or transformation of emotional, physical, relationship, existential and behavioural issues, or of chronic suffering, through well-founded relational processes. The aim of psychotherapy is to support increased awareness and choices, and facilitate the development, maturation, efficacy and well-being of a client. Psychotherapy involves what is known and what may not be known in personal functioning, usually referred to as ‘conscious or unconscious factors’. Through a holistic perspective it encompasses the mental, emotional, behavioural, relational, existential and spiritual health of a human being. A psychotherapist engaged with a person to explore social factors that shape their understanding of who they are in relation to others and how they create meaning. Aspects of problems solving are integrated into an affective approach that involves deep structural adjustment of the psyche and encompasses the context of the whole person

Differences between psychotherapy and counselling

It should be borne in mind that the above definitions of psychotherapy and counselling are just two ways of describing what are often understood as complex processes and activities. They are difficult to define. However, these particular definitions do help extract some important features of these two forms of talking therapy:

  • In counselling, the focus is to help you make use of personal resources and to use those resources so as to function more effectively in life. Primarily the work is to help use what is already known about the self and to solve problems.
  • In psychotherapy, a key element is often a process of transformation and of self-understanding based both on what is known and what is not known - so here there might be a focus on conscious awareness and also unconscious factors.

From the above two distinctions, it can also be seen that in counselling the focus tends to be more on present-centred problems and difficulties, and finding solutions to these here-and-now problems, whereas in psychotherapy not just change to circumstances and behaviours to work through problems but also what is described as transformation in some way of the person.

To clarify a little further, Transactional Analysis (TA) is an approach which defines the activities of both counselling and psychotherapy. TA Counselling is process that enables people to develop awareness, options and skills for problem management and personal development in daily life through the enhancement of their strengths, resources and functioning. Its aim is to increase autonomy in relation to their social, professional and cultural environment.

The activity of TA Psychotherapy is to facilitate healing and change. The process enables the person to recognise and change archaic, self-limiting patterns - ‘to deal with the pain of the past in the present so that they are free to live their lives in the future’. The aim is for for people to understand themselves and their relationships and create options to live their lives in an aware, creative, spontaneous way.

It is often said that the difference between psychotherapy and counselling is that psychotherapy lasts longer than counselling, but from the definitions and explanations above another way of viewing the differences between psychotherapy and counselling is that the focus of the work, the goal of the therapy, is significant too.

So if you are contemplating seeking psychological help, as a first step perhaps asking yourself the following questions might be useful:

  • Do you want help to support your current life, with what you already know and understand about your life but need help to live in a more satisfying way?
  • Do you understand your difficulty as something requiring greater growth, healing or transformation?

If you are thinking about beginning psychotherapy or counselling, these might be questions that could help you to find the kind of help that will be most beneficial and satisfying - the therapist that is right for you. That might be a therapist that can offer psychotherapy and counselling, as a psychotherapist is trained to do, or you may prefer a specifically skilled and effective counsellor who can help you to facilitate self-knowledge and work through here-and-now problems. 

The question really is what are you seeking? Is now the time for you to live a more more satisfyingly life or might it be time to to transform?

There came a time when the risk to remain tight in the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom. (Anais Nin) 


Further reading

Meet the therapist: Liz Jeffries

Which type of therapy is right for me? 

Do I need counselling?

Humanistic therapy helped me break harmful relationship patterns

The benefits of therapy for young people

Transactional analysis: understanding self and others


European Association of Transactional Analysis (2012). The Four Fields of Specialisation

Sheppard, G. (2015) Notebook on Ethics, Legal Issues, and Standards for Counsellors 

Interim Definition for Psychotherapy for PACFA