What is psychotherapy?


What is psychotherapy?

Psychotherapy? Therapy? Counselling? What’s the difference?

The terms “psychotherapy”, “therapy” and “counselling” are used interchangeably in many contexts including this web site. The regulatory body, the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP), makes no distinction between the two flavours. Both are talking therapy. It would be meaningless to watch a video clip of a therapy session and ask the question, “When is it counselling and when is it psychotherapy?”

The different terms arose for historical reasons. As I understand it, psychotherapy originally arose from within the medical establishment. As a consequence a lot of medical terminology came with it (“patient”, “clinical”, “diagnosis”, “illness”, etc). Counselling arose as a reaction against the medicalising of people’s problems, so it set out to use a different language (terms like “client”, “session”, etc).

To complicate matters further, different schools of both psychotherapy and counselling ended up competing. Trainings grew up which specialise in the benefits of their particular tradition. The training of therapists is still divided into psychotherapy and counselling streams, and within those there are individual schools which remain faithful to different traditions. Psychotherapy trainings remain the longer and more expensive trainings. However, all traditions have had their certainties modified over time, not least by recent research into human brain development. Nowadays most traditions are open to learning from each other.

So what is psychotherapy?

The question has no simple answer. Even psychotherapists can’t agree with each other, so it depends who you ask. Robust debate continues between different branches within the profession of psychotherapy. It’s best just to accept it as a broad church and not worry about it!

I have studied the teachings of both psychotherapy and counselling traditions, and I have learned from both. After years experience of practice my original training is less significant than later learning.