By Dr. Louise Williams
Dr. Louise Williams is a philosophical counselor and coach serving the survivors of toxic people. Her business is Empowerment Through Thought. After navigating two toxic parents, a toxic ex, and a toxic mother-in-law, she decided to leverage her training in philosophy to help fellow survivors. You will often find her hanging out over on her Instagram where she combines her dark sense of humor with the latest trends to teach folks how philosophical tools can help them navigate the fallout of long-term abuse.
What the heck is philosophical counseling?
When the pandemic struck I was in the final stretch of my PhD program in philosophy. While I had done quite well on the academic job market, I had not yet had an offer, and I figured that the pandemic was going to destroy whatever chance I had. As I turned to what would be next for me, I discovered philosophical counseling.
In its most basic form, philosophical counseling is about using the tools of philosophy (systematic thinking, questioning, and problem solving), to help people navigate their everyday challenges.
There are two big camps in the philosophical counseling world. One camp thinks that this work is so similar to the work of mental health professionals that one has to be licensed as a mental health professional in order to do the work. The organizing body for this school of thought is National Philosophical Counseling Association(NPCA). Another camp argues that philosophical counseling is sufficiently distinct from the work of mental health professionals that no such training is required. The organizing body for this school of thought is the American Philosophical Practitioners Association(APPA). I am certified by the latter.
Perhaps we could say there is yet another, less formally recognized, school of thought which holds that philosophical counseling is a bit closer to what we currently call life-coaching than it is to mental health services.
I currently work as a philosophical counselor and coach, so let me share specifically what I think is going on with these fields. It is important to recognize that philosophical counseling is still an emerging field and at least the APPA embraces a diversity of methodologies as constituting philosophical counseling.
Let’s imagine human experience on a spectrum. In the middle of this spectrum is the point called functioning. When you are at this point, you are capable of getting through your day to day life but overall it is neither a good nor bad experience. You are just sort of doing it. Then to the left of that line is the space where we are seriously mentally struggling. On the more extreme ends we may not be able to get through our everyday tasks at all. We may be suffering from things like severe depression or other serious mental health challenges. To the right of this point is flourishing. On the extreme end this looks like feeling wildly fulfilled by your life’s work and achieving whatever your idea of success looks like.
Mental health professionals are particularly useful for the left end of the spectrum. Life coaching is most useful for the right end of the spectrum. I see philosophical counseling as particularly useful for the gray zone that sits on either side of the functioning line.
I work in that gray zone.
My business is called Empowerment Through Thought and I help the survivors of toxic people feel understood, experience deep healing, and move forward from the past. This means that my clients are largely abuse survivors. Many of them have complex PTSD (a condition that is currently not listed in the DSM – the main handbook for mental health professionals), but these challenges are not so severe as to undermine their ability to get through the day.
Through my social media, I attract survivors who have a basic understanding of the abuse that they have endured and are in a relatively stable place mentally.
My clients are often troubled about ethical and metaphysical issues such as what it means to be a good daughter, especially in light of having to go no contact with abusive parents. Some struggle with sorting out who they are outside of their abusive past. Many struggle with letting go of unjustified beliefs forced upon them by abusive people.
One sort of philosophy has a big stronghold in the space I work in and that is Stoic Philosophy. However, I think that this is actually very problematic for a variety of reasons, so I counter those stoic methods by pulling in tools from my background in Buddhist Philosophy.
In my philosophical counseling work, I help survivors navigate these heavy ethical and metaphysical issues. I also pull on my work in feminist philosophy to help them unpack why they might have been subject to a particularly difficult circumstance thanks to the extra pressures of society at large. See my podcast episode Body Shame and Toxic People for a good example of this.
I offer both philosophical counseling and life coaching services to my audience. Philosophical counseling is most appropriate for folks who are wrestling with big deep questions about how to make sense of their circumstance and how to navigate the ethical fallout of these circumstances. Life coaching is most appropriate for folks who need some support in getting into action in order to make the changes they desire to reclaim the life that they deserve.
Coaching has a lot of hands-on accountability and support. My coaching clients can contact me once a day over email or voice message for the duration of their contract. I have online tools to help them track their progress. We walk away from each of our meetings with specific tasks that they are to complete by our next session. I write up notes from each session so they have a written record of their progress.
Philosophical counseling is much less hands-on. It reflects the structure of other forms of talk-therapy. My clients typically bring specific challenges to me, and we work on the philosophic aspects of those challenges together. There is no accountability, structured contact between sessions, or action items for them to complete. It’s a lot more like hiring a philosopher to chat about what ails you rather than a structured system of support.
Personally, I think it is very difficult to pull in a full time living just doing philosophical counseling. Standard rates for each session in this space mimic the cost structures of therapy but without the additional support of insurance. Coaching, on the other hand, is a premium product and so demands premium prices. For a reference point, my counseling rate is currently $200 USD per session and my basic coaching package is $3000 USD for 90 days of support. That is the high end of standard rates for philosophical counseling and the low end of standard rates for coaching.
You’ll notice in answering this question about what is philosophical counseling, I haven’t really walked through what the methodology of philosophical counseling is. The number one thing is to recognize that unless you are a licensed mental health professional, it is illegal for you to provide mental health services (at least in the United States). So as a philosophical counselor, you have to recognize when to refer a client out. I have some blanket rules to help with this. I do not work with anyone diagnosed with a personality disorder. I do not work with anyone who is stuck in a pattern of rumination about the past. And I do not work with anyone who can’t seem to follow a basic line of reasoning. I work online, so I refer such folks to either BetterHelp or The Crisis Text Line depending on their circumstance.
That’s really the only consensus in terms of the methodology of philosophical counseling. I personally have studied Peter Grimes work on Philosophical Midwifery, but overall that felt uncomfortably similar to talk therapy for my tastes.
I have a PhD in philosophy and a lot of lived experience in common with my target audience. I allow myself to just be the philosopher that I am. I understand that is not likely to be very helpful to you, but what might be reassuring is that philosophical counseling as a field is still coming into its own. There is a lot of opportunity for exploring what this service looks like for those who are interested.
For me, philosophical counseling is a way to use my education in a meaningful way to help people navigate some of the most difficult experiences that human beings ever have to face. It is satisfying in that it justifies my decade or so of studying academic philosophy and in that my ideas greatly impact people’s everyday experience.
If you have any questions about philosophical counseling or coaching, you can contact me here.
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- Academia and Mental Illness: A Preliminary List of Resources