I’ve spent a fair bit of time in the counseling office as a counselor and some as a client as well. On my journey I have learned quite a bit and continue to learn every day. There are a lot of things that could go on this list, but I’ll keep it to just a few for now.
1. You are not alone
I don’t know exactly what you are going through in life, but I have worked with a lot of people and one thing I have discovered in the counseling office is that the human experience is fairly universal. The details of everyone’s life are unique, but the things we feel transcend culture, borders, and even language.
I read a book several years ago titled “Emotions Revealed” by Paul Ekman, and in it the author discusses his research on facial expressions. He discovered that there are several facial expressions that are recognized worldwide. Expressions like happiness, sadness, anger, and fear.
If someone on the other side of the world can recognize what sadness looks like, then there are certainly people near you who will be able to understand what you are going through. Always remember that no matter how lonely, broken, or unlovable you may feel, you are not alone. There are others who have been there. If you reach out, there will be people who will reach back to help. They may be even closer than you think.
Support groups can be a great resource in this regard. Most people are familiar with groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, but there are also support groups for a multitude of other things.
It can be incredibly healing to be around people who have experienced the same things as you and understand your struggles first-hand. When describing his first experience with a support group, Paul Gilmartin of the Mental Illness Happy Hour said, “it’s like my entire life I’d felt like a three-legged dog and then I walked into a room of three-legged dogs.” There is nothing quite like being in a room full of people who get where you are coming from because they, too, have been there.
That brings me to my next point.
2. One of the biggest parts of therapy is the relationship
I don’t mean the kind of relationship with a counselor that makes the news. I’m referring to the kind of meaningful human connection that we are all built for.
People can go crazy in isolation. (Click HERE for a great article on the effects of isolation.) Meaningful human relationships are vital to mental health, and I often encourage people to reach out to trusted friends and family members for support. Therapy is great and hopefully life changing, but I don’t want people to have to depend on me for the rest of their lives.
Part of what I do as a counselor is help people find tools and resources that are already close at hand, and a big part of that is finding healthy people to connect with.
So much of life is central to relationships. How we connect with our significant other, friends, family, and community. In fact, a lot of mental health issues stem from either a lack of connection or poor relationships.
In most of the couples I work with, one or both of the people in the relationship will display symptoms of various diagnosable disorders. What’s interesting is that when their relationship improves, the symptoms will often lessen or go away entirely. That is why I tend not to focus too much on a diagnosis. It is often just a symptom and can be a distraction.
The problem is that relationships, romantic or otherwise, can be difficult at times. Opening your life up so that someone can see you for who you really are can be scary. It can be downright terrifying, in fact!
It takes a lot of courage to put yourself out there because that means you can be rejected. You can be hurt. Many of us have been very hurt by relationships in our lives and that has left scars.
We can get it stuck in our heads that it isn’t safe to open up.
3. A good counselor can help you get out of your own head
Have you ever believed something to be true only to find out later that what you believed was wrong? When I was a kid I would misunderstand song lyrics constantly. I would be singing a song and someone would hear me (usually my brother) and inform me that I was way off. It could be really embarrassing.
We all have beliefs like that. Things we believe about other people, the world, and especially ourselves. I’ve got a blog all about Distorted Beliefs and how they can affect you if you are interested in reading more on that topic.
People talk about things in therapy that they may not normally open up about in their day-to-day life. I have observed that sometimes all people need is someone with whom they can share their thoughts and fears without feeling judged. People say things to me all the time that they are hesitant to bring up because they are afraid it will sound crazy or dumb.
One thing I say over and over is something along the lines of, “That is a really common response,” or, “Of course you’d feel that way! Who wouldn’t?” It amazes me how many people think that their inner life is warped or broken because of something they think or feel. I know I’ve felt that way!
Our thoughts just bounce around in our heads, and if we never speak them aloud it can be easy to start believing them. We won’t know if they are true or not if they just stay in there and we don’t seek outside support or input from someone else. That is one way those thoughts can take hold and become so compelling.
If we don’t have healthy relationships with trustworthy people who we can share our inner thoughts and worries with, we can get stuck in a dangerous cyclical pattern. When we get so worried about what our brains are dwelling on – whether or not these thoughts are true – and don’t share them with anyone, it becomes easier to isolate yourself from people even further. This just leads to more worrying thoughts, which makes us more likely to isolate even further. It’s a vicious cycle.
This brings me to the last point.
4. Counseling offers a safe place to get vulnerable
Throughout much of our lives we wear masks. We smile when we feel depressed, tell people we are “fine” when we are anxious, or put on a brave face when we feel anything but brave. All that pretending can be exhausting, and it isn’t bound to last without incident.
We all have different roles in life. For instance: I am a counselor, an uncle, a drum teacher, a brother, etc. I play a different role in each of those situations because they all require a different set of skills. When I am in the counseling office in Omaha, I have my “counselor hat” on; but I interact differently with my clients than I do with my students or family.
We wear different hats throughout our lives, but that is different than putting up masks. You put on a hat to embrace who you are and put forth a set of talents that best serve the situation. A mask hides an aspect of yourself that you are either ashamed of or don’t feel safe sharing with others.
In therapy you don’t have to act or pretend. When you find a good counselor that you feel safe with and trust, you can let down your guard. You have nothing to prove in therapy.
These moments are when the best work can happen. It is such a relieving feeling when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable with someone and find that we are accepted, valued, and affirmed. It is a very common to fear that we will be rejected when we show people who we really are. I have felt that. I still fear that sometimes.
For more of my life than I would like to admit, I let the fear of vulnerability keep me from sharing my weaknesses and struggles with people. Once I finally did, however, I found that people were overwhelmingly accepting, loving, and understanding.
It’s amazing what can happen when we open up to someone and find healing, acceptance, and understanding. I found my relationships becoming deeper than ever before; even with friends I have known for decades!
Something fascinating happened when I found the courage to open up to people: they saw that I was willing to be vulnerable with them, and so they trusted me more and opened up about themselves as well. It almost felt like magic.
I see a lot of the work that I do as a counselor to be practice for the real world. This is one reason therapy can be so healing. If you can open yourself up to a good counselor and find acceptance, compassion, and understanding, then you can do the same with other trusted people in your life. You do have the courage within you, it might just take a little help uncovering it.