In the interest of full disclosure, I was pretty terrified of seeing a counselor once upon a time, even though I knew I wanted to be one. Relationship stress didn’t convince me. Panic attacks didn’t convince me. Processing difficult experiences by myself didn’t convince me. I squeaked by with the help of mentors and a compassionate partner, but still couldn’t get to that place in life that we’re all seeking – the one that feels relieving and grounded and safe. In fact, it was only after I applied to graduate school, when we were required to seek personal counseling as part of our introductory classes, that I finally swallowed my fear and jumped in. We were required to go to six sessions. I went for two years. And sessions with that counselor, though I now see someone different, still cross my mind and help me cope when new things arise.
Fear does all sorts of things to a person, but one of the most frustrating has to be the way it convinces us to turn away from help. To be self-reliant to the point that we become our own disconnected island. And to reject and diminish the support of people, therapists, who spend every day working to help people move through the fear to a place of relief, groundedness and safety. I don’t do this work for the paycheck – I could find plenty of things that meet that need! I do this work because I believe in the therapeutic process and I have seen and felt success, both personally and with my clients.
So here are some reasons to think about finding a counselor right now. Not when you’re in crisis, or have developed scar tissue so thick that it feels impossible to see beyond it. Don’t wait as long as I did, stalling in survival mode. I can’t imagine how much more richness I might have found in my life if I had started my journey earlier.
6 Reasons Why Therapy Doesn’t Suck:
1. You don’t have to go forever.
I hear this one a lot – a fear that if you start going to therapy, the work might be so vague and overwhelming that it might never end. Not true. At a first session, you can talk to your counselor about your specific goals, and you can be clear that you want to be able to move forward someday without needing counseling. In fact, that’s how we know counseling is successful – you reach a point where you feel like you have learned enough skills and found enough clarity that you can cope on your own. That’s not to say that you have to eventually cut off and move on forever if you don’t want to – often a counselor can keep your information on file so that if a crisis comes up after you’ve finished your work, you can stop in for a touch-up, get re-grounded, and head back out into the world. It’s an awesome resource to have.
2. Your brain can actually change.
This is a real thing. Fifty years ago, psychiatrists thought that once your brain developed, it was pretty stuck, and your behavior was fixed (though you could use talk-therapy to understand your fixed system). A decade ago, research had advanced and researchers thought the brain could rewire itself, but you were stuck with the cells you were born with. Now, researchers have found evidence that we actually grow new neurons, and they can be assigned to the part of the brain where they’re needed most. This means that working through experiences can actually rewire and rebuild parts of your brain that might have been neglected for a while. Learning to relate differently to those around you literally builds new pathways for functioning. Likewise, pathways that were not so helpful, like the superhighway to your fear center that made it easy to have panic attacks, can start to grow-over and become smaller if you are able to develop alternative routes and ways of coping (for more info about this topic, search for “interpersonal neurobiology“). You can change your brain. You and a brain surgeon. You’re the only ones.
3. Therapy can accelerate the things you are already trying to do.
I know you’ve got some things you’re working on. Maybe you want to feel more motivated, or less stuck. Maybe you want to improve your relationship with your partner. You can totally do that! It will take awhile, but you can do it. Counseling is the practice of putting a magnifying glass over something that feels stuck, analyzing it, and dedicating resources to helping it move forward. This is a whole field developed to help speed up this process for you. More than that, with some focus and momentum, it can be fun and exciting to see the progress you can make, rather than feeling like you’ll just be stuck at a snail’s pace for the foreseeable future.
4. Learning how to connect deeply to others takes practice.
We’re born with some pretty powerful instincts to connect to other people. Our parents are often the first that we focus on, and depending on how that relationship goes, we learn a lot about how safe it is to connect to people outside of ourselves (for more on this, look up “attachment theory“). But if we learn that connecting to others is not super safe, that doesn’t mean our need for safety in connection goes away. In fact, it usually becomes more frantic, flailing around, trying to figure out what is going wrong and why connecting doesn’t feel safe. Sometimes we end up blaming ourselves or losing trust in those around us. Whatever the outcome, the therapeutic relationship is a purposefully safe, confidential place to experiment with what it means to trust and connect with somebody. Terrified of counseling? That could be an indication that vulnerability feels extra-risky to you. Which means that the opportunity to connect in a place that is specifically designed to be safe and supportive could be exactly the relief you are looking for. It might lead to more trust in yourself and your more vulnerable parts of self, which could allow you to open up more freely in connections with those you love.
5. Difficult past experiences can turn from a burden into an opportunity.
Trauma, grief and loss, relationship conflicts, feelings of personal failure – they take a heavy toll on a person. We often turn away from the pain and/or emotions because they feel too difficult to contend with. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean the emotions just dry up and go away. In fact, when they’re not attended to, they usually get louder with time. Sometimes they come out explosively, in the form of misplaced anger that is confusing and scary to you and those around you. Sometimes it dribbles out slowly and exhaustingly, showing up as chronic anxiety, depression or self-loathing. Whatever you’ve been holding, therapy is intended to be a place to carefully and safely start to turn toward whatever it is you’ve got. With attention, curiosity, and permission to be expressed, those emotions start to become unstuck and move through. It’s not instantaneous, but when your emotional system starts to feel trusted again, it can begin to relax a little. You’ll feel like you’re carrying less, because you are. And you’ll start to notice that space that had previously been taken up by internal coping and survival is now available for engaging with the world around you.
6. You deserve someone in your corner.
No matter what beliefs you carry that tell you to do this alone, or you don’t deserve help, or help isn’t possible, you deserve to seek support. Your struggles are human. They are real. And struggling alone can feel so suffocating. Part of what we work to provide in the therapeutic relationship is “unconditional positive regard,” or the idea that whatever the appearance of your behavior, you have real, valid needs trying to be met and real, valid goodness in your intentions. I have never found this to be false, no matter how many barriers were created to try to convince me otherwise. I trust that you deserve unconditional positive regard in a safe space. Do you?