I know most of you guys are skeptical about Instant Messenger Counselling.
Understandably it can be difficult to imagine how you can form a genuine therapeutic relationship without talking… without sharing a physical space… without being able to look at someone’s facial expressions.
Over the time I have been doing online counselling via Video, Talking, Email and Instant Messenger (let’s just call it IM from now on), IM and the impact on the clients I have walked alongside is something that’s worth sharing. There’s a real uniqueness to this emerging technology you may not have considered.
And maybe it can even help you.
I’m going to outline 3 fascinating elements of an instant messenger counselling process.
These are based on the generous musings of some people who have been supported in this way, as well as my own experience as a therapist.
Perhaps if you’ve been holding off seeking counselling even though you think it might help you, or you’ve scoffed at the idea of your offspring or younger siblings getting help through IM then read on!
IM is slower
That sounds like a problem doesn’t it? Except it isn’t.
Using IM forces us the use all the time as best as possible. That doesn’t mean we leap straight into the deepest darkests and re-traumatise you, but it means we can concentrate on one event in teeny tiny detail.
Sometimes when any of us are talking we can get very involved in the Big Picture, which can be a little vague. If you’re anything like me in general conversation, that can involve backstories and sidestories, random thoughts and think-outlouds.
All of this is completely fine and helps build relationship. Plus there’s no prescription for self-discovery. You go with the flow sometimes and incredible parts of yourself come to light!
But the Big Picture isn’t particularly specific, and specific is kinda what we’re looking for to be of most use to you: to help you apply solutions In Your Real Life.
IM can provide a container.
When we unpack a story or an event in IM we tend to stick to that story. That hour. That Event. That minute. It’s very focused.
And if we’re building up a sense of you: how you handle problems that arise; how you re-member a special person in your life, their influence on you and who you are now; examining your responses to traumatic experiences (coz you totally responded in ways that were stronger than you think) then answers often lie more in the specific than the general.
This purposeful slowness additionally has benefits for neurodiverse folks who might be needing a bit more time to get their expressions together.
IM can get creative really easily
You can use the INTERNET in REAL TIME while you’re using IM.
(btw, by IM I don’t mean your actual phone).
I mean a safe secure platform designed for chatting online.
If you’re non-verbal you’ll be really good at this whole process, and if you’re super-verbal then this might be a new way of looking at how to Do Stuff:
So let’s just say we’re chatting about an anxiety that takes hold of you. We’re really talking specifics about this thing: how long you remember it being around for, what makes it worse and what makes it shrink a little; what it stops you from doing; what happens in your body when it’s doing it’s thing, experiences that highlight all of this etc…
Then I might ask you to give the anxiety an ‘experience near’ name.
Naming or externalising is a common practice in Narrative Therapy, and although I’m not a ‘strict’ narrative therapist (I consider myself eclectic), naming is so often really powerful and helpful.
Giving something a name that’s you-centred ‘experience near’ means you can gain more control over it.
You don’t have to work hard to recall it when you’re under strain, and it means your youness and expertise are called for as the #1 priority in looking for ways to deal.
So let’s just say you name this anxiety ‘Electric Eel’.
We can then immediately jump on Google Images and find your Eel. I might suggest one or you might find one yourself:
Now this particular one also comes with a story. It’s a short article debunking tropes about electric eels. Here’s an excerpt:
They can generate a charge large enough to kill a grounded person, stun a horse or blow out several bulbs. But they don’t exactly light up like Las Vegas. They also are not capable of constantly emitting jolts over a long period of time, and will eventually run out of juice if forced into it.
This story can act as a bit of an ‘Outside Witness’. Someone who we can invite to witness your emerging story of gaining control over electric eel when we don’t have or aren’t ready for any ‘actual’ people.
It can be just as powerful.
We can even use the ‘true’ information in this anecdote about eels to play into your own knowledge of your own Electric Eel: discovering what makes yours ‘run out of juice’ when it’s no longer useful to you; wondering why an Eel might alert you to danger when there isn’t any etc…
There are times we’ve googled even the simplest of phrases or words for images, and found our way to an art therapy site or a journal. If you can imagine how powerful that can be as another way to find connection and ‘healthy’ comparison (“oh, so HIS electric eel makes him feel sick, but mine winds a rope around my chest”).
I’m also wondering if you can see how counselling, even dealing with serious issues, can be sometimes a little fun while also being helpful?
IM can reduce face-to-face stress
Some of my clients who use IM have had terrible experiences sitting in a room with a professional.
Sometimes that might be because the professional was hellbent on Diagnosing them when they didn’t want to be.
Other times they just simply found it too painful to be sitting in constant awareness of the ‘thing’ they were ‘meant’ to be talking about.
And still other times feeling so terrible and scared they were robbed of their voices and it just wouldn’t go away.
When you’re using IM you can be at home or in another comfortable space. You can make sure you don’t have to drive or go anywhere afterwards. You can be wearing your PJ’s.
No one can see you.
You can be crying
or googling images
or writing notes to yourself
I can’t see or hear (or smell) any of that.
For some of you that’s incredibly comforting.
It doesn’t mean you aren’t engaged in the process, you’re just not as self-conscious.
And stuff like being able to draw while talking or straight afterwards can be extremely beneficial.
Feeling more comfortable in some kind of anonymity can actually have the opposite effect to what most people think the biggest disadvantage Instant Messenger Counselling: that it’s not ‘personal’ enough.
Researchers call this the ‘disinhibition effect’.
More specifically, IM counselling could be characterised by a benign disinhibition effect which basically means that you might disclose more via the anonymity of online (as opposed to the toxic version, where people get super abusive who wouldn’t In Real Life).
All of which means you might feel more comfortable chatting about whatever is going on via IM and getting to the heart of it.
IM might actually be quicker than IRL for some of you to figure out ways through even the hardest of times.
So there you have it: a few ways that Instant Messenger online counselling can become a unique place for you to explore the issues in your life.
There are a bunch of other ideas ideas I haven’t touched on here, so please do just shoot me a message or comment below and i’ll discuss it further… or perhaps if you’ve engaged in IM counselling or even a really supportive IM relationship you’d also care to provide comments for those who are contemplating and curious.
There are also lots of free and crisis services providing IM counselling, so go Googling if you’re feeling up to it now.
As for me, I can say that not only do I see these benefits professionally, I probably wouldn’t have ended up with my partner (who is one of the loveliest people on Earth) if we hadn’t been forced by distance to do a whole bunch of IM’ing. But that’s another post…
Are you wanting to read more posts about how to be supported online in writing or talking? Sign up here to jump on my list. If you’re looking for an online counsellor you can write with without having to talk or be on video then please do get in touch, i’d love to help you or find someone who can.
* main image credit Tranmautritam