If you connect with Emily's story or have ever wondered if you should call a professional counselor, then this letter is for you . . .
Dear Hurting One,
I don’t know you — your fears or your wounds, your worries or your heart. But I know that you are probably scared. You might feel ashamed, embarrassed, or alone. If you have never talked with a therapist, or if you’ve had a bad past experience, then you may have a lot of questions about counseling. Things like:
What will the counselor think of me?
Why do I feel this way?
Am I the only one?
Can a counselor actually help me?
Am I crazy?
Is there hope for me?
I cannot speak for all counselors everywhere, but if you were to walk into my office, I would want you to know a few things about me and about the counseling process.
Waiting Room, by Barry Sherbeck (2011), 16" x 24", photograph on metallic paper - barrysherbeck.com
Being a therapist is my profession, and I take seriously the privilege and responsibility of walking with people in and through dark seasons. I will not be shocked or surprised by anything you tell me, and I genuinely want to hear your story. All of your story — the glossy, pretty, exciting highlights, but also those moments cloaked in shame.
I think a huge part of counseling is being a witness to your story — standing next to you and helping you see and acknowledge and understand your pain and your journey. My job is not to judge or condemn, but to bear witness. To say — Yes, this happened. You felt this. You did that. You had that done to you. And I’m so sorry. Now let me help you unravel what it means and how this thing has woven itself throughout your everyday, walking-around life.
I sit in my counseling office with many ordinary folks, just like you, who are struggling with depression or anger or addiction or anxiety or eating disorders or any number of things. Now hear this, friend: You are not alone. Let me say it again: You are not alone! And what’s more, it doesn’t have to be this way. My job is to help you understand your past, so you can write a different kind of story with your life.
Sometimes I think a therapist’s job is a little bit like being a boxing coach. I can’t get in the ring of your real life with you, but I can help clean you up when you get hurt. I can give an outsider’s perspective on how you’re engaging in the fight, pointing out places where you are getting needlessly hurt or expending energy unnecessarily. I am here for you. I am for you. For your healing, your growth — for the redemption that can be part of your story.
Sometimes folks have questions about the boundaries around the counseling relationship. I want you to know that although this is a professional relationship, it is still a very real relationship. I am a regular person too and far from perfect. I have my own struggles, but I won’t unload those on you, because this is your time. I won’t hang out with you outside of my counseling office, because the boundaries around our relationship are there to protect you.
Therapy is not about waving a magic wand — it’s hard work. For me, the best kind of counselor doesn’t just sit quietly while you free-associate whatever thoughts are going through your head. It’s not about merely listening and validating anything and everything you think or feel.
Real therapy is about change. When you come into my office, my assumption is that you are ready for a change in your life. Therapy is about learning how to do things differently. If you are serious about doing the work of counseling, I will ask you to lean into the discomfort of hard questions. We will experiment with new ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving.
Let’s get Practical
When you are ready to talk to a professional counselor, Psychology Today is a great resource for finding a local therapist.
If you would like to see a Christian therapist, a good place to start is by asking for referrals from pastors or Christian friends. Sometimes folks ask me how important it is for a believer to see a Christian therapist. In general, it probably makes sense to first look for someone who shares your basic worldview. But if you are seeking help for a very specific problem that can be helped with a specific kind of therapist (such as cognitive-behavioral therapy for a phobia), then the spiritual beliefs of your therapist are less important than their competence in the treatment modality you need. Finding someone who respects you and your faith, and who wants to help you grow in your faith and life is perhaps more important than simply asking, “Is this person a Christian?”
A few other things that can be confusing about counseling are all the degrees and names, so here’s an abbreviated (and very general) glossary:
Psychiatrists are medical doctors who can prescribe medication and typically do not do consistent talk therapy (i.e., weekly 50-minute therapy sessions).
Psychologists are therapists who have a doctoral degree in psychology. Clinical and counseling psychologists typically do talk therapy and/or psychological assessments. Although you can call them “doctor,” they can’t prescribe medications. (Some therapists have doctorates in other related fields like marriage and family therapy, and they don’t prescribe meds either.)
Master’s Level Therapists are therapists who have a master’s degree in a counseling field (such as counseling, mental health, marriage and family therapy, or social work) and do talk therapy (among other things).
When you are ready to talk to someone, do some research to find a person who specializes or has experience in your area of concern. Find out the therapist’s credentials (are they licensed? what is their degree?) and don’t be afraid to ask questions. I am never offended when a potential client asks about my background and training.
Don’t assume the first person you call is the best fit for you. The quality of the therapeutic relationship is one of the most important factors in how effective therapy will be, so make sure you feel comfortable and cared for by the counselor.
Therapy is about many things, but one of the most important is instilling hope. And that is my wish for you, friend. That you would have the courage to find a good therapist who can walk with you in and through your story to a place of hope.