I remember the first counseling appointment I ever went to. It was almost 20 years ago. My parents brought me as a young girl so I honestly don’t remember their concern, but I DO remember the counselor telling my parents I was fine; there was nothing to worry about. My parents explained that it was something they had to fix, not me. The psychologist advised them and that was the end of that.
A few years later, in my early teens, I asked my parents if I could see this counselor again. We had several meetings, but ultimately, he told me I was doing really well, and he didn’t really see any need for me to continue meeting with him. He wasn’t helping me any more than I was helping myself. I never saw him again, but I’ve sought counseling again and again through different life stages and challenges.
I’m that girl that, on a good day, will tell you I love therapy and everyone should try it out. Most of us are a bit messed up. Most of us need it, and all of us would benefit from it.
Many don’t feel so excited at the thought.
I feel relatively comfortable asking for help and talking to trained professionals about where I’m struggling, but I know it’s not easy. In fact, it’s intimidating, vulnerable, awkward, tiring, and even discouraging. I’ve felt all of those things to a degree at various points, but it can be paralyzing.
Here are some ways I use counseling as a tool to serve my needs.
Find a counselor you trust
Vulnerability is coming. Your emotions, thoughts, and weaknesses will be easy to spot and that is SCARY! You need someone you can be open with. For you, it might be important to have either a male or a female, or maybe you prefer someone you already know. Some problems are easier with a complete stranger. Do you want a pastor, a counselor, or a psychologist? Maybe someone with specialized training in your need? Do you need this person to have a certain faith background? For example, I have never required a Christian counselor as a rule, but depending on my struggle, this could be a crucial characteristic in order for me to trust their input. At this point, the majority of my counseling experience has been with Christian counselors and has brought a lot of value for me. That’s just me, but I know it’s important.
It all depends on what’s available and what you need (and what you can afford). Someone familiar with you will give insight based on a contextual understanding of you. They might know your background or your current life season. This gives them a holistic viewpoint, however, you must be comfortable with her and trust that appropriate boundaries will be maintained. A fresh counselor you’ve never spoken with before can be helpful if you have a really complex life-story and want an unbiased opinion. Of course, as the conversations progress you’ll likely be invited to dig up what’s relevant from the past, but you start with a clean slate. Emotional warning: you may have to explain, from the beginning, a painful issue. Verbalizing all those tender details to a stranger in a quiet room is tiring and unnerving, but very necessary.
Check your motives. Establish goals.
This should happen before you step foot in the counselor’s office. In the aftermath of a traumatic event, all you’re thinking is, “I can’t do this. I’m not gonna make it through. Something’s gotta give. I need to talk to someone.” Survival comes first. Make the appointment. Call your pastor. Do a google search. Once you’ve taken that step to admit you need a little help and guidance, that’s when it can benefit you to figure out what you need and why you need it. For example, at one point, I knew without a doubt that I needed some help in a specific area of my life. I borrowed a book until the date of my appointment arrived and it was good that I did. It prompted me to ask myself whether I wanted to talk to someone to calm my emotions or to actually seek change. Those questions were:
- What do you want to get out of this?
- What are you willing to do to change and rebuild?
- What has changed within yourself since deciding to seek help?
The opportunity to be honest is my favorite part about seeing a professional counselor. NO surprise, right? I already professed my passion for therapy. Seriously, though. This is one place I have the freedom to express my true feelings without worrying about how acceptable they are. Sometimes I notice something new about myself just by speaking honestly out loud. I can think of one meeting where I was slightly dishonest with my counselor. I left that meeting fooling myself that I was doing a better job than I was, and she wasn’t able to help me because I wasn’t being vulnerable with my weaknesses.
Another side of this is honesty with yourself. Unless you are ordered by a court to attend therapy, you are choosing to go. You don’t HAVE to go. Maybe your spouse, pastor, friend, or whoever is putting on the pressure, but if you’re an adult, you have a CHOICE. If you find yourself in that overstuffed couch with a box of tissues strategically placed, you better get the most out of it(especially if you’re paying per session!).
invest in yourself
Therapy doesn’t have to wait until a crisis. Just like other areas of our health, pro-activity and prevention keeps you out of trouble. Early in 2016, I realized I should’ve asked for help sooner, because a huge chunk of time went by as a depressed blur. I missed out on so much life.
All of this said, the above advice will be most helpful when you want to do the work of improving yourself or putting something painful in the past. Some people have strong opinions about going to an outsider and getting input from someone unaffected. That’s valid, and we all have that choice. These are just some things that I try to do so that a few weeks or months later I can be confident that I’ve turned a corner and put difficult issues in the past.
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