It’s important to stress upfront that the distinction between psychotherapy and counselling is not always clear-cut nor cast in stone.
The trigger for wanting counselling is likely to be from an adverse life event. It’s possible to think of it as seeking the support of someone who you can trust with feelings that may be painful and overwhelming. The work will probably be of a shorter duration and with a lower frequency of sessions than psychotherapy.
Alternatively, an adverse life event may be accompanied by thoughts which go something like: “Why am I feeling like/going through this again?” Or you might be aware of a recurring, nagging discomfort for no apparent reason: feelings which are too anxious, too hot, too low, too dark or even uncomfortably absent. It is a sense of discomfort which is with you, and you recognise it as that unwelcome guest again. At this point it’s worth thinking carefully whether it might be more beneficial for you to seek out a psychotherapist.
A psychotherapist will be able to work with you as a counsellor does, but, when the time is right, also be able to work with you to understand how your beliefs and underlying patterns of thought – which sit outside of awareness – might be linked to what is troubling you. It’s worth emphasising that you and your psychotherapist will likely explore elements of yourself which sit outside of your awareness, so the relationship that you have with your psychotherapist is key.
As discussed in another article, current research is indicating that the primary curative ingredient in talking cures is the relationship with your practitioner. Because psychotherapy is longer in duration, you will likely want to talk about this therapeutic relationship with your therapist, and may be gently encouraged to do so, if or when the time is right. Broadly speaking, the therapeutic relationship is not brought into awareness in counselling.
Some other more general differences between psychotherapy and counselling lie in the duration and intensity of training. Psychotherapists are generally qualified to postgraduate level, have a more comprehensive clinical training, and will have spent a number of years in therapy themselves. Before starting, asking where and how long a prospective therapist has trained, and how much therapy they have had, is no bad idea. As a rule of thumb psychotherapists will likely also be a member of UKCP (UK Council for Psychotherapy) or BPC (British Psychoanalytic Council).