What is the difference between counselling and psychotherapy?

The terms counselling and psychotherapy are often used to refer to the same thing. Both are talking therapies in which you are given the opportunity to discuss issues that are troubling you and preventing you from living a full and contented life. While this is correct, it is important to recognize that counselling and psychotherapy also have individual characteristics which allow you to differentiate between them. In addition, there is a perception that the term counselor is more socially acceptable than the term psychotherapist due to an element of stigma surrounding the practice. Therefore, it is not uncommon for a psychotherapist to refer to themselves as a counselor to alleviate these concerns. In practice, it is often the case that elements of the two types of therapy are used interchangeably.  


Counselling involves the provision of professional assistance by a counselor to a client which usually focuses on a particular matter. As counselling tends to deal with more immediate issues that may have recently arisen, it is most common for people experiencing marriage or relationship breakdown or bereavement, for example. Therefore, the counselling process is generally, but not always, a shorter process than psychotherapy. Through talking the issue out, the counselor and the client work together to identify the steps needed to address the issue or solve it altogether. Counselors are trained to guide a client to find their own solutions and are a source of help throughout the process. During a difficult period in a person’s life, a counselor can provide active listening, understanding and support and all on a non-judgmental basis. 

Psychotherapy also takes place between two individuals – a psychotherapist and a client – on a deeper, more long-term basis. Psychotherapy normally has a longer duration than counselling as it usually deals with a client’s patterns of behaviour and recurrent feelings. It also focuses on more long-term issues that may stem from the client’s past, for example, child abuse and past traumas. During psychotherapy, a client can expect to explore their past experiences and use that exploration to resolve their impact on their present day life. Psychotherapists may use a variety of methods to achieve this such as connecting with your inner child, exploration of your unconscious mind and reversal of patterns of behaviour through cognitive behavioural methods.  

As mentioned previously, the two terms are often used to refer to the same thing. Most people are concerned with the difference between them when faced with the decision of whether they need to see a counsellor or a psychotherapist. You shouldn’t worry unduly about this as the important thing is that you recognise that you need to talk to a professional. However, it will help if you take a moment to consider your needs. If you have a single concern that you would like to talk through, counselling may provide the best solution for you. On the other hand, if you have noticed a pattern of behaviour or have a past event that is preventing you from living your life as you wish, then you should consider psychotherapy as the best course of action.

David Dunne is an online marketing consultant and freelance blogger writing on behalf of Aria Therapy in Dublin, Ireland.


1 comment

  1. Nice description! As one who has had and been a councilor (when are we not both okay and not?). Many work places offer counseling as a benefit to help worker to get over specific life stresses and I have need that service due to a number of things that I have had to deal with physically and emotionally. I was also a mental health specialist (I have done an great deal in my life) for the chronically mentally ill and there I was mostly a support as these persons tried to live their life the best they could with a terrible illness.

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