By Jennifer Beauvais, LMHC (Photo credit by digitalspy.com)
It seems that mental health counseling is starting to become more acceptable and normalized, thank goodness. I think in the past there has been a few assumptions at play that made it seem like seeing a counselor was a sign of weakness. And something only weirdos do. I had a friend recently tell me he thought only rich neurotic folks like you see on television got therapy.
Personally, I was shocked. I didn't know my work could be typecast like that. Although, ha! Now that I think of it, I get a mixed response when I tell folks what I do. I used to work for that Forest Service doing trail work, winter rangering, and jumping on a fire crew now and then. People reflected that they thought that was pretty hard-core and fun. I was decidedly not a threat at parties. Funnily enough, I have noticed a different reception when I mention that I am a therapist.
"Are you diagnosing me?" Some folks have asked.
"Don't read my mind!" exclaimed one teenager.
I have noticed that some people will look instantly uncomfortable and start looking for the nearest exit. For example, if I am sitting with them on a ski lift, I will see them assessing the drop to the ground, quietly equating if they can land the fall with only sprained ankles. I figure it is not that I seem like a scary person, but that there is a fear I am secretly judging them and seeing only what is bad and shameful about them. Like I will pull out a pocket-buzzer and signal to the world that they just don't have that X-Factor.
I actually get this. It's not true, but I get it. This is how I felt in relationship to my teachers all through graduate school. And even with my own therapists. Yup-- I have seen therapists. Plural. Not only is it a requirement in grad school, but, like a lot of therapists, I understand the value of seeking a fresh pair of trained eyes outside of my usual family and social dynamic to help me transform and rock difficult times in my life. But when I first started seeing counselors, I was terrified of how they might see me-- i.e., how I might see and judge myself through them.
Now, this fear of judgment is normal, and it only becomes a problem when it keeps us from getting help when we legitimately need it. So let me try and allay a few fears here about the therapeutic community:
Therapists are mistake-making, average folks who have decided to understand the human condition: Just in case you were worried. We are not a group of peeps who have somehow figured it all out and now handle every situation with perfect equanimity. We cry over break-ups and get ticked at the Verizon help line. We have been partiers, introverts, gang members, athletes, in bands, film makers, heart breakers, affected by domestic violence, terribly mistaken, embarrassed, and all of those human things (I am some, not all of these things, but I know stellar counselors who have covered these bases). We use our experiences plus our training for personal growth, and to empathize with clients so we can understand and support them in the best way possible.
Therapists have been trained in empathy and compassion, not judgement: Might I be able to tell if you are feeling anxious or depressed after a little while of chatting with you? Maybe. But think about it-- you can tell that with lots of folks because, as humans, we are built to pick up on non-verbal communication. Is it something I would use to characterize you? Heck no! Because first of all, everyone feels these things. Second of all, I don't know what has happened to you recently or in the past that you might be feeling like that. And I don't think anxiety and depression and other emotions are who you are as a person. Emotions are symptoms of how our nervous systems face challenge. That's biological, not moral. My job is to help you feel relieved of that type of suffering, not make you hate yourself into creating more.
Therapists have been trained to help YOU suss out the amazing way you have grown to keep yourself thriving: As humans, we have a lot of coping skills we start developing from the womb and forward. As we grow older, our skills can become outdated and less useful. But they have brilliantly helped us get to this point. A therapist's job is to help you understand your own brilliance, and the love you had to show for yourself to develop the coping skills you have. We then help you update and practice new skills that feel more amenable to what you are wanting to experience in your life. Therapists know this inherent good is part of the human condition, that all humans are a process, and not a hopeless goop of unchanging challenge.
Therapists replace some of what is missing: Humans are tribal. We evolved living in groups in which the individuals rely on each other. Many of these tribal groups often had medicine people, shamen, or wise elders that could help others in the tribe. There were honorary aunties and uncles around to help with the children. We have let go of our tribal roots in order to live independently, with modern conveniences. And while this affords us a certain level of comfort, we are also more isolated and lonely. Therapists do not fully make up for the loss of tribe, but we serve to help create more of a sense of connection.
All humans have a nervous system, which means all humans have emotions: I cannot stress this enough. Emotions are a byproduct of our perceptions of danger and our nervous system response to that danger. We are talking about biology here, folks. Humans are wired to assess their situation and respond accordingly. If you grew up in dangerous surroundings (where even love was not guaranteed), then you might feel more sensitive to your environment than somebody who grew up in a relatively safe, loving environment. This might come through in how you experience emotions. A therapist does not judge you on this...in fact, if you come to a therapist, we usually think, "My gosh, how brave and self-loving this person is doing something about their mental health."
When therapists DO judge: Not all therapists are good at working with all issues. For example, I do not perform in-depth couples therapy because I am not trained in it, and I know it is important to have solid help in this arena. Not all therapists feel they are the best to help with certain types of trauma, or certain emotional presentations. A therapist will use judgement in these situations because we are ethically trained to do no harm, and to ensure the client is with the best possible therapist match they can find. We want what is right for you, and sometimes that includes admitting to ourselves that it is not us.
Well, that's a long article. But if you needed to see it, I hope you found your way to it. I also hope that, as you consider the scariest parts of choosing to engage in therapy, this helps you feel more comfortable thinking of your therapist as a human being who has also been through life, and is not set apart from you. Again, we have just made it our jobs to map the journey so that we can better assist you upon it. We might challenge thoughts that seem limiting to you, and we might encourage you to try things that are uncomfortable, but all this will be happening in an environment of support. Okay? Sound cool? Okay. Smiley face.