By sharing our thoughts with an attentive, non-judgmental trained listener, we put words to our issues. In this supportive, encouraging environment we shine the light of clear thinking on these issues and we begin to gain insight.
We explore the source of our angers, fears, and frustrations, and gain a more detailed understanding of what bothers us. Perhaps for the first time in our lives, we begin to piece together parts of a puzzle that had seemed unsolvable. For example, angry episodes, or binge eating, or depression, which seem to come out of nowhere, now begin to make sense.
As we talk, secrets and fears no longer seems so dangerous or so crazy. Instead of pushing these topics out of our awareness, we give ourselves permission to explore them openly, revealing new possibilities that help us see our situation in a new light.
Getting in touch with sources from childhood
Most of us think that we outgrew our childhood frustrations. But in times of stress, we find ourselves acting like children, and realize that our childhood tactics simply went underground. These childhood responses were the first ones we learned, and they stick with us, in one form or another, as the basis for our adult behavior. Amidst the many valuable lessons we learned as children, we also learned some not-so-great habits such as pouting, acting out, running away, attacking ourselves and punishing the people who frustrated us. Now, in adulthood, these learned responses continue to surface under pressure. If these childish responses intrude themselves powerfully enough, they can push us towards feelings and behavior that are not in our best interest.
During counseling, we recognize the powerful issues born from our childhood helplessness and lack of choices. Our deeper insights into unresolved grief, anger, self-pity or fears, set us free from old frustrations, remove obstacles and help us reshape the story of our life. We learn new choices that we didn’t have access to as children, choices that satisfy our emotional needs. No longer a helpless child, we learn that it’s okay to speak up more assertively to express our own position. As we learn to stay balanced, even under pressure, we can give more of ourselves to others, and as our behavior becomes more predictable and harmonious, we improve the safety and trust of our relationships.
New tools, new perspectives
Through our introspective work, we grow smarter about ourselves. We explore many tools for coping with life, such as soothing our nerves to turn down the intensity of stress. We recognize and modify our self-talk, that voice inside our own mind, which may be in the habit of saying unproductive or even nasty things that make us feel worse.
We also grow smarter about relating to others. For example, we find out that negotiating brings change, while complaining keeps us stuck in a rut. We realize that speaking supportive or self-revealing words in a relaxed voice can reduce the frequency and intensity of arguments. If we are raising children, we learn how to pass the benefit of these insights onto them, increasing the harmony and health of our family.
Reluctance to seek counseling
Even though we want to feel better, we may feel reluctant to seek help from a counselor. If we need help, and help is available, what obstacles might prevent us from seeking it? By examining typical concerns about counseling one by one we can make a more informed choice about this valuable resource.
“I’m not one of those (crazy, dysfunctional, helpless) people.”
In fact, one of the valuable things a counselor can do for us is to help us realize that it’s normal to struggle with thoughts, feelings and issues we wish we didn’t have. Counseling is not about being crazy, but about getting the most out of life.
“What will other people think? ”
We all want to be normal and accepted, and are afraid that by going to counseling we’ll look like we’re different. However, it turns out that many people have been through counseling, and that it no longer carries with it a social stigma or label. In fact, many people admire the fact that we’re taking charge of our concerns and working towards solutions.
“I can figure this out myself.”
Many methods help us get through difficult issues. Some we can do on our own. For example, we can study self-help books and tapes, pray and make healthy changes to our life style. In addition, humans are social beings and need to check with other people to stay on track. With a counselor we compare notes and get feedback and insights, as well as learn methods we didn’t know about or didn’t know how to apply.
“It would cost too much money.”
Counseling becomes more practical when we think of it as an investment in our present and future happiness and success. Our mental health is the basis for our comfort, joy and effectiveness with work, relationships and family. Relieving stress and mental challenges can even improve our physical health.
“I’m uncomfortable confiding in a stranger.”
Like jumping into a swimming pool, once the initial shock is over, we can relax and derive the many benefits of unburdening ourselves and talking about hidden things, openly and objectively, perhaps even letting go of secrets that we have never revealed.
“The counselor may talk about my situation to others.”
Counselors are ethically and legally restricted from disclosing our situation unless we give permission. There are exceptions to this rule, when there is a threat of harm to self and others.
“I’ve heard bad stories about counselors, or have had bad experiences myself.”
There are many reasons why counseling may not work in a particular situation. However, if we take the possibility of failure as a reason not to do something, we would have to stay in bed all day. We need to start down the road of growth and change assuming that not everything we do will bring instant success, but knowing that our effort and willingness to try will ultimately bring us to our goal.
Minimum entry requirements for counseling
Some conditions interfere profoundly with our ability to process ideas, and limit the value of counseling. But even those who suffer from psychosis, schizophrenia, severe manic-depression, brain injuries and disease and mental retardation can benefit somewhat. Hidden amidst their distorted mental capacity, lies a real human individual, who can benefit from the caring connection with another human. Therapy can reach out to them, help them feel heard and understood, help them stay motivated and functioning, and can also contribute strength to other caregivers.
Active substance abuse, another condition that profoundly interferes with the functioning of the mind, also diminishes the benefit of counseling. However, even under this less than ideal condition, counseling during substance abuse may gradually provide ideas and perspectives that can give us strength to change.
Resistance to change
But even if we have the brainpower to think clearly about ourselves for many reasons we may not want to. We may believe our identity is cast in stone, and there’s no point in trying to understand it. Or we believe that the cause of our problems lies in forces outside our control, and so, we need to wait for others to change.
Even if we try to understand ourselves, we may not be willing to go very deep. We may fear that we won’t like what we find, or we have shameful secrets, or worse we will raise terrifying, destabilizing issues, against which we fear we will be powerless. We may prefer to forget our childhood, insisting that we have long-since escaped our parent’s influence, or we may feel rude and ungrateful to look at their all-too-human faults, preferring to keep them elevated on their pedestals.
Sometimes we find fault with our own behavior and accept that change is possible but we’re not ready. For example, we may be in an abusive relationship or hooked on cigarette smoking but we don’t want to talk about it because we can’t imagine life without our behavior.
Secret of change
Our pains and frustration, when held as sacred secrets, maintain their hold over us. These secrets, like a hidden gold mine, contain a treasure trove of unfulfilled potential deep in our core. Dialog with a counselor opens the doorway to understanding. These forays into ourselves stir up curiosity. What was mysterious, dangerous and forbidden becomes accessible, and we want to learn more about it, and check out our insights with others. By openly exploring our own inner reality, we gain insights into our own process. As we grow, we more fully experience emotions that we had stifled or neglected, and in so doing, we awaken compassion for our self and others.
Does counseling work?
When we are trying to adjust something so intimate as our own self, how can we know if we succeed? If we feel scientifically oriented, we could wish for some objective test that would compare our happiness before and after counseling. But that’s seldom if ever practical. The real test is our own satisfaction. Do we feel better about ourselves and about life? Do we appreciate the value of new tools and skills? Can we steer through our issues more comfortably and are not so shaken by events as we used to be? Is counseling itself a comfort, knowing we can talk with someone about our problems, and help see our way through situations? These are very personal questions, with very personal answers that only we can decide.
What to do if we feel discouraged
We come to therapy expecting relief from internal pressures. At first, we experience relief simply knowing we are making effort. After a while we may feel frustrated that our problems are not disappearing as quickly as we would like. Such ups and downs are natural.
To get the most out of therapy, we need to acknowledge any sense of failure or frustration. If we feel disconnected or that our time is not being spent productively, instead of abandoning our efforts, we can press on and try to get to the other side. By looking at our frustration as a problem to solve, and taking into account that our therapy may be touching on issues we might prefer to avoid, we should jump in with both feet and try to tackle our discouragement head on.
One way to keep counseling on track is to remind ourselves that we have a particular goal in mind, and as long as we are making effort towards achieving that goal, we are working productively. Even if each day brings only marginal results, every step we take in the right direction is a healthy one.
To change habits that have been building for our whole lives, we need to persist through these ups and downs. The speed of our success in counseling depends on what we are trying to accomplish. Resolving what seems like a simple issue could reveal patterns that have been troubling us since childhood, while resolving an issue that seems complex may require a relatively easy shift in perspective.
Quick fixes and long term mental health
In some situations, a quick fix is exactly what’s called for. When our car has a flat tire, we want to fix the tire and get back on the road. The first task of counseling is to safely get us through our immediate situation. But changing important parts of ourselves involves profound evaluation of our thinking strategies, reframing our story of self, and replacing old habits with new ones. Lasting change and growth can be a lifelong project, as we learn to replace self destructive choices, and develop new, more effective habits and perspectives.
Most of us treat our mental health lightly, hoping for the best, but spending little time trying to improve it, seeking help only in dire, painful circumstances. Rather than wait until the most desperate time, we can help ourselves best by treating mental health as an ongoing project. When times are good, we can take advantage of our additional strength and poise to develop insights that will make us even stronger. Just as brushing our teeth regularly prevents extensive dental work and healthy living reduces the risk of disease, we can approach our mental health with an eye towards the future.
Many factors come into play in any human relationship, and this holds true in counseling as well. Personal characteristics such as cultural background, gender perspectives, thought process or speech habits influence our ability to relate well to this particular therapist. The therapist’s training and theoretical slant also affect the way we relate. If we feel disconnected from a therapist, to the point where we no longer feel our contact is productive, we should raise this issue directly with the therapist. Our counseling relationship is based on being direct and open and this should be true even in our sense of personal connection with the therapist. Such frank conversations could be exactly what’s needed to get therapy back on track. If that isn’t productive, and we feel our differences cannot be worked through with this therapist, we ought to consider that it’s not a reflection on the entire process of counseling, but only on this particular situation. Hopefully, we can face such a mismatch and continue with our determination to grow.
If we find ourselves discouraged with the entire process of individual talk therapy, we still have many other options. For example, we may be better served by getting feedback from group therapy, or we may be so bottled up by body memories that talk therapy isn’t reaching the heart of our issues and we would be better off with music, movement or art therapy.
To find a counselor
Ask around among trusted friends and family. You may be amazed at how many people have had some interaction with counseling, and would be willing to offer their suggestions. If you can’t find anyone who can recommend one, ask if your insurance plan offers a list of therapists. Or check the internet. For example, Psychology Today validates credentials and offers statements from the therapists in your area.
What more can we do?
Results from counseling also depend on how badly we want to change, and how much effort we apply. Do we want to change badly enough that we’re willing to become involved with therapy, pondering our situation in between sessions, deeply examining the things that may be at the heart of our problem? Or do we skim the surface, showing up at sessions, and just going through the motions?
We can make the best use of our investment of time and money by taking counseling seriously, working on our issues as honestly and openly as possible. When we want to change and grow, we can find many ways to help the process, such as groups, journaling, self-help books and tapes, and other agents of change.
Other programs can contribute to our growth. Twelve Step programs offer group support to overcome addictions, to help loved ones of addicts, and to help adults who grew up with an addicted parent. Hospitals and other community organizations offer support groups for grieving, caregiving, parenting and coping with the effects of disease.
We can also seek solace and insight from our religion. Prayer and trust in a higher power are some the oldest and most widely used forms of self help in civilization and belief in a higher power gives us a strong resilient base from which great strength can grow.
Our family of origin contains kernels of truth that we missed the first time around. When we’re ready to grow we often find our family at the center of our thoughts and feelings. To help our therapy, and to grow, we can try to find and heal those issues that block us from harmony with our family. We can discover threads of meaning we had forgotten from childhood, by talking with parents, uncles, aunts and siblings. We can uncover and heal hot buttons that often represent doorways into important, unexplored areas of our psyche.
In exploring ways to grow, we can use old-fashioned wisdom, and try to introduce healthy, energizing activities into our days. For example, we could cut down on television, and put energy into active pastimes like hobbies, sports and art. We could cut down on coffee, alcohol and nicotine and increase the amount of exercise we get each week. Regular exercise by itself can reduce depression and anxiety. And we can soothe our uncomfortable feelings by learning techniques such as deep breathing, yoga and meditation.
Anti-depressants have brought relief to millions of people suffering from low energy, melancholy, excess sleeping and other symptoms of depression, and anti-depressants may even be instrumental in saving the lives of those whose depression triggers suicidal intentions. However pills do not change our beliefs and thought patterns. To understand how our beliefs structure our world, and how to develop more effective thoughts and habits, we need to explore the patterns of our minds.
When we’re faced with a familiar situation, we see it through our own eyes, so naturally we gravitate to familiar responses. When these familiar responses continue to lead to troubling results, we feel stuck. To get out of our rut we need new perspectives. But friends and family are seldom in a position to help us pierce through our confusing and potentially intimate concerns. Counseling can help us out of this stalemate. With a counselor, we can focus on issues in detail, and see them in a new and energizing light.
By working with a counselor to seek deeper understanding of ourselves we not only overcome our current obstacles, but we empower ourselves to cope in the future. We have everything to gain by deepening and enriching our understanding and experience of ourselves. We are the actor in the center of our own drama. By tuning up our skills, our understanding of our role and the ways we relate to other people, we can improve every aspect of our lives.
See also: Advice, Change, Cognitive Therapy, Couples counseling, Family Therapy, Journaling, Language, Medication, Self-help
The right to be human, a biography of Abraham Maslow by Edward Hoffman, Ph.D.
Care of the soul by Thomas Moore
Momma and the Meaning of Life : Tales of Psychotherapy by Irvin D. Yalom
Love’s Executioner : And Other Tales of Psychotherapy by Irvin D. Yalom, Randall Weingarten
The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck