Friends ask, “Is what I’m going through a good enough reason to look for a therapist?” Potential clients call me and say, “I’m not even sure if my issue is something people go to counseling for.”
These and similar questions are all too common. And – spoiler alert – most often by the time people ask this question or give me a call they are already past the threshold of when I would suggest seeing a therapist.
So yes, if you are at the point of wondering whether it would be a good idea to seek counseling, then it probably is a good idea to seek counseling. But why do we drag our feet? Sometimes people wait weeks, months, and even years to finally send that email or make that call. There’s something about counseling that makes us think twice about taking the plunge.
As a therapist I sometimes smile at this nearly universal discomfort. From the looks of things, you’d think my clients were walking into a dental appointment and women’s health appointment combined when they step into my office for an initial session. There are few things more uncomfortable than diving into counseling.
Why is pursuing therapy so uncomfortable?
Let’s break it down by rewinding to the beginning of the process, before you ever consider seeing a counselor. First, there tends to be a growing sense of identification that something is off about how you’re living your life or how you feel about your life. Or it may be that a significant life event happened and things haven’t been the same since. Sometimes, a friend or loved one might suggest you see a therapist because they notice something doesn’t seem right.
Then typically people go through some sort of denial: “I can deal with this on my own,” “If I just ignore the problem and keep my head down it will pass with time,” “If I remind myself of positive things then I’ll feel better,” “If I complain to my husband less then maybe our marriage will improve.” Sometimes our attempts will buy us some time, but after awhile they tend to leave us feeling worse than when we started.
Then the shame cycle begins. We have an uncanny ability to bash ourselves quite harshly for our lack of “success” in coping with our issue. We start to be hard on ourselves by calling ourselves names or wagging an angry finger at ourselves. Often we use language towards ourselves that we’ve seen modeled for us somewhere else – a dysfunctional parent, a childhood bully, an abusive ex. More time passes.
In some cases, this can spiral downward. Sometimes people will react to their shame by trying harder to fight their problem on their own. Maybe they will lean on some unhealthy behaviors or addictions just to get through. They will still not succeed and the shame replays like a broken record. I’ve seen it get very ugly.
Hopefully at some point before this cycle has become too destructive there is a sense of acceptance of the problem:\
I can’t deal with this by myself. I need help.
I can feel the deep sigh of relief flow through me in gratitude for all the brave souls who have ever crossed that threshold. “I need help” is the most vulnerable statement a human can make.
At this point, you’re now tasked with looking for help. But how do you know where to go? It’s not like scheduling an appointment with your physician when you get symptoms of the flu. Questions come up about whether what you’re experiencing is “normal.” And then if you get to the point of deciding to find a therapist, how can you ever know who to trust?
The few who continue forward at this point might look online, call their insurance, or ask their friends for therapist recommendations. If you call or email some of them you may find that very few return your message. And most of the people who are available might not help you feel more at ease when you speak to them. Some therapists are just downright bad.
If you find a therapist, schedule an appointment, and show up, you’ve accomplished quite the feat! Pat yourself on the back for doing all that hard work.
Once you arrive at your first appointment, you are challenged to share your private information – sometimes your deepest secrets – with a complete stranger. What a crazy idea! No wonder it is so incredibly uncomfortable. It’s hard for me to imagine anything more odd.
So what’s the point of all this?
Coming back to where we began, there is a good chance that seeing a therapist will help you move forward with whatever psychological or interpersonal issue you might be facing. And if you’re not sure, a great starting point is going ahead and calling up a few therapists. See how they respond to the question, “Can you help me?” See if you feel comforted by how they speak with you over the phone, and if needed, take your time before deciding whether to schedule an appointment with someone.
My desire in writing this blog is to convey how difficult, uncomfortable, and sometimes painful it is to open ourselves up to the counseling process. But hopefully seeing what the journey is like might encourage you to reach out to someone sooner if you need it. Or maybe you know all too well what it’s like to fall into the snares of the shame cycle and you just needed that nudge of encouragement to make the decision to find a therapist. Maybe you’re pastoring or mentoring someone in that place and you’re realizing you may need to help them find a professional to meet their needs.
Whatever the case, I’m grateful for the journey that can lead up to the point when someone steps into my office. Only the brave ones make it to that point, and we are all capable of being brave for a moment.