The first time I went to meet with my counselor, I was incredibly nervous. I had little idea of what therapy would be like. I was anxious about being emotionally vulnerable with a complete stranger and wondered if I really needed to be there.
I had made the decision to seek counseling when dealing with a difficult end to a relationship. The situation had caused me to feel hopeless in a way I had never encountered before. I remember, in that first session, my counselor asked me why I was there. I said something to the effect that I felt I was too worried about what other people thought about me. It seemed the related anxiety was interfering with my simply being who I was in whatever situation I was in.
He asked me several questions about my background to get to know me. At the end of the session, he explained that his approach would be to help me better understand my story, that I might more fully become the woman God had created me to be. I said that sounded great. I thought maybe it would take about a month.
A month passed, and I thought, "Six months, maybe." Down the road a bit, I thought, "perhaps a year?" Eventually I've just stopped thinking in those terms. It’s strange to think about that first session, remembering how anxious I was, how straightforward I thought the process would be, and how simply I framed my “problem.” It’s remarkable to consider the range and number of struggles he has walked through with me since then, including troubled relationships, issues related to eating and exercise, serious doubt and frustration in my faith, periods of hopelessness, and, most painfully, the untimely death of my father.
I do want to acknowledge that I am very, very blessed in that my first experience with a counselor has been fruitful; I know that is not the case for everyone.
And I know that for some, the stigma associated with therapy keeps them from considering it — it kept me from talking about it for a time. However, especially at my darkest points, I have come to realize it doesn’t matter what other people think. What matters is that I need help.
Of course counseling is not going to solve all of your problems. That is not the point. (For more on the point of therapy, see Dr. Kim Eckert’s Walking with You to Hope: A Therapist’s View) I tend to get exuberant when talking about my counseling experience because it is so important to me, but don't take that to mean having a counselor makes the world rosy and I'm happy-go-lucky. Still, the benefits of going to counseling have been invaluable for me. Here are just a few of them:
A compassionate ear. When I first started going to counseling, I think this is what I needed — and valued — most. I needed someone to just listen and care, whether that meant being shocked at the way a person has treated me, helping me realize that I can be angry, or simply sympathizing during a hard time to help me recognize how I feel and remember how to cry.
An outside perspective. This benefit seems obvious, but I don't think I would have realized how many ways this could play out. The "easy" ones are his guidance in making decisions and pointing out flaws in my reasoning. But then, there's also the way he can say things friends and family are too close to be able to say. For instance, he can help me realize how certain parts of a past relationship were unhealthy, or how I'm taking on too much and should cut some things out, or how I'm not superwoman and need to partake of rest that God commands, or how important it is to make the time and emotional space to truly "be" with people. He also has the perspective to challenge my assumptions about how I think my "story" is supposed to go. He can call me out when I try to measure my progress against legalistic boundaries instead of living in God's grace.
Regular conversations with someone who knows me really well. There have been seasons of my life the past few years that were "lighter." In those seasons, there wasn't anything particularly hard I was dealing with, and we just talked about my goals or ways to engage more with life or discussed something that happened that week. While I appreciated those sessions for what they were, they built a foundation I've been so grateful for when life has taken heavier turns. I can't really describe how incredible it is to know that you have someone outside of your situation whose job (quite literally) is to support you.
Being free to not know everything. Once, during a session, my counselor and I both thought we heard a knock on the door. When he checked, however, no one was there. My counselor joked it was God, and asked if he should have let him (God) in. I said, yes; I had some questions I'd like to ask God. He laughed, then said more seriously, "I have some questions I'd like to ask him, too." Having a safe place to voice doubts and ask questions has been incredibly important, but even more important is being able to voice those thoughts to a person who has lived a lot more life, but readily acknowledges that he doesn't have all of the answers, either..
Someone to move me forward. This means having someone who, when I half-jokingly mentioned I would like to start writing, quite seriously asked when I would have the draft of my first article and where I would submit it to be published. When I say I need to follow up on an interaction with someone, he asks me when and how I am going to make that happen and what I am going to say. He is someone who encourages me to take risks, to do things differently, and isn't afraid to help pick up the pieces afterwards.
Now, the way I feel when I drive to my counseling appointment is very different from those first sessions. Sometimes, I wish that once I arrive, I wouldn’t have to leave. I would rather stay there in the room with my counselor, where I feel safe and heard and cared for. I wonder what would happen if I simply refused to leave. But it has never come to that. However much I go into that room feeling like I can’t face the world outside it, I always leave willingly. Over the course of the session, he has made me feel like I can.