Counseling and therapy are, I am proud to say, becoming relatively commonplace. It seems that more and more of my clients now have experience with some form of counseling when they come in, even if it is only one previous session. The good news to me is that they have actually overcome the initial hesitation and gone for it to some degree. To make something way bigger of this anecdote would be hasty on my part, but I take it as a potential sign of something good.
We are designed to think about our lives, talk about our choices, seek improvements in our personal conditions, and foster healthy relationships. It should be compelling enough as a human to see that in the times we are able to allow ourselves to be vulnerable and transparent about our own needs and patterns (in a safe situation), we have the greatest opportunities to grow and become stronger. If we are, in fact, collectively seeking help at higher rates, then I am happy that it may be a sign that we are potentially more open to examining certain things in our lives and relationships. We could go on for days about all of the other possibilities for what this might indicate about our times and the people living in them, but for now, I will bask in the possibility that we could collectively be heading toward allowing ourselves to live life, examined, versus marinating in lives, unhappily in repetition. Maybe it isn't a large trend, but a select number who seek to know more about themselves and their relationships. Counseling gives us a forum to take this opportunity for ourselves and our loved ones, so I have listed some ways counseling can be helpful below. Some are common knowledge, and some are not. Some of these applications surprised me even after becoming a therapist.
#1 I have received training in a variety of different therapy models, but the models that seem to bring clients relief the quickest and most efficiently are those focused on helping break patterns. Some of these models focus on identifying problems first, while others spend more energy moving on and building upon strengths. I think in either case, a healthy understanding of ourselves, combined with a careful recognition or accounting of our strength can be important when clients are seeking get the courage and strength to overcome problem-saturated personal story lines and become more oriented to recognizing our own strengths, and applying those strengths toward real solutions.
#2 Counseling can also help us become more informed about ourselves, relationships, our behaviors and our emotions. I noted earlier that we can learn to identify our patterns, but I think we can also learn to notice how the things in our lives impact us, cut through years of learning to "act like a grownup" and to recognize that ALL of the emotions that accompany us through the birth canal or cesarean incision continue to impact us daily (whether we admit it or not). Learning to identify these emotions and effectively cope with them, rather than "manage" them can be the key to remaining healthy and balanced. The same idea is true regarding our behaviors and our relationships. Learning how our feelings impact behaviors is critical toward understanding how we interface with others.
#3 Counseling frequently helps people cope with difficult situations, even when those situations have not resulted in dysfunction. Because confusing or otherwise difficult situations can be very emotional, sometimes it is helpful to have a counselor assist as you to sort though them. Also, while family and friends are frequently there for us during hard times, such as the death of an family member or friend, loss of a job, or divorce, they are also there with a gob of feelings themselves. No matter their intentions, this can actually make it even more difficult or complicated. Many people who enter counseling do so because their circumstances are emotionally heavy, and they need a separate place to grieve or cope with other types of losses. Family and friends, also facing their own emotions, may be limited in how effectively they can step outside of their own feelings and allow you to grieve the way you need to. Sometimes this compels some of us to be "strong" or "tough" for others, which sometimes means we don't fully experience our emotions. Repressed emotions related to difficult circumstances can lead us to struggle in daily life, and that may not happen right away. Even when it seems like a major event went by effortlessly, it might be wise to plan for the expected emotions with a counselor, to review and understand what you might look for to know they are present, and to avoid unnecessary dysfunction in spite of an event or experience. A few visits to a counselor after an event occurs can very well be like a sort of "checkup", wherein you can relax and sort our your feelings instead of just assuming you are fine.
#4 In the same way that I discussed above, Counseling can help a family organize more efficiently around a difficult situation and work together to help everyone through it. Counselor training and experience can help families identify certain "blind spots" and encourage even the tough guys in the group to take good care of themselves or allow themselves to appropriately receive care from others when they need it the most. I will never know how many families have avoided total meltdown by engaging in this sort of process, but I have seen families who have entered treatment in crisis. Those families are often normal people who fell into very real and disabling patterns by not recognizing the importance of appropriate coping, support, and self-care following a challenging situation. No one is ever completely immune to this potential, so I think it is wise for all of us to consider having an honest and experienced person help us examine our well-being.
#5 Counseling can help us prepare for change, big or small. Life becomes habit-forming, in that we tend to walk in tight circles around repeated choices, but there are also situations in which we face changes. Often those changes are happy, such as with a marriage, new relationship, or the birth of a child. Sometimes they are not so happy. In either case, change is always stressful. I will also include here relationship choices, because shiny, new things carry stress and adjustment with them in spite of their newness. Changes shape our world often impact how we have to go about meeting our needs and engaging with others. Frequently, without realizing that they are doing so, people who have new children describe an experience to me that is similar to those who lose a loved one to death. These experiences are similar, simply, in that they are both about living on in a world that is now very different. While one is supposed to be sad, the other is supposed to be joyous. There is nothing wrong with recognizing in either situation that life is definitely different now, and that we can be allowed to express our feelings (good and bad) about each of those changes. We can use the counseling experience to our advantage to capitalize on the most special pieces of being human, and to honor those opportunities by examining them fully, with the focus on ensuring we make the most of them for our families, our loved ones, and ourselves.
#8 Perhaps my not-so-secret favorite application of my therapy experience and training is helping others deal with difficult people (or other people's difficulties). Some people in your life can actually be toxic in the way they interact, the choices they make, what they demand from you, or what they say. Some people are good, but might still contribute to toxic amounts of stress because they are so deeply immersed in difficulty. If either of these general descriptions sounds familiar, then counseling can be very useful to you in helping you cope with the feelings and to establish a more livable reality for yourself and family. As another possibility, sometimes, counseling can help you, help others manage their lives. This could be to help you and your family in the long run, but it could be to help you retain your sanity and life quality while aiding another in need (caregiver stress). Call it an "indirect" effect of counseling, but I have seen it work. The more direct effect is also very much worth it, as those stresses reduce, and you can resume a more normal life. In the case of toxic people or their choices, counseling can help you manage the difficult daily interactions, the emotional pain, and work to establish healthy boundaries with those who disrupt your ability to be the person you want to be.
#9 For some, counseling can be a place to examine values and establish choices based on those values. Whether your conviction comes from a religious experience, or if you just have some notions about how you would like to live your life, therapists tend to be pretty good at allowing open-minded exploration about values and behavior choices. Keep in mind that if you are flirting with the notion of becoming a vampire or something like that, your therapist might not endorse your life choices but could still help you find some way to live a meaningful and pro-social way of life, should you be so inclined. Should you not be inclined to be socially-responsible, then see a therapist anyway. It would be best for anyone involved.
#10 Many times my clients almost accidentally work toward learning to cope with the seemingly unspeakable. I use the "seemingly unspeakable" categorization, because so much of our pain and choice to keep things to ourselves has to do with the perceived appropriateness of sharing those feelings with others. One of the most common of these in my practice is when a widowed spouse comes in to discuss grief about the loss of a wife or husband, but struggles with feelings of relief that the deceased finally died after a long and stressful illness or disability. It is understandable, but it is often very difficult for people to integrate the way the think they should feel when they evaluate the expectations from culture. What about missing an ex-spouse after you are re-married? What about feelings of anger toward one of the kids? What about the same toward a step-child? What if you can't stand your in-laws? How many opportunities do people get to discuss these feelings openly in life, without others trying to "talk them down" or deflect those very real feelings? While it seems rare, I have had conversations about these feelings with people frequently, and, in each case, I think the ability to discuss and explore the feelings in counseling made a difference in how completely the person was allowed to feel in control of their own choices later.
#11 Moving on after a painful experience can be very difficult for many people. Grief and Forgiveness are two processes whereby we can adapt to life after profound change. There are significant misunderstandings about grief and the notion of forgiveness that can really complicate our emotional worlds and choices after loss. With forgiveness when we have been hurt badly, an incorrect notion of forgiveness can even lead to unsafe returns to risky situations with others. Grieving in such a way as to not allow a full experience of emotions can lead to repressed feelings and the damaging after effects physically, emotionally, spiritually, and in relationships. Allow a counselor to assist your journey through grief and toward true forgiveness.
#12 Counselors are typically adapt at helping others establish personal goals, planning action steps, and working to overcome obstacles such as skills deficits or self-doubt. While this might seem overly simplistic, we very rarely give ourselves the opportunity for specialty planning sessions about some of the most important things in our lives, such as relationship goals and careers. In some cases, I have seen people put more energy into planning a weekend outing than they have toward their entire career, but I have also seen the value for those who have taken the opportunity for some conscious thoughts toward how they will actually take steps to meet goals in life. Counseling can be a great opportunity to look at a small piece of life, abilities and challenges, and take appropriate action to ensure your actions and goals fit naturally into the bigger picture.
#13 Counselors can definitely help people with family and marriage planning, no matter the circumstance. I am always fearful for people who automatically assume that a good feelings predict a good idea or indicate logical thought, so I am often similarly fearful when couples seem to get married without considering the future or the reality of in-laws, taxes, financial burdens, and kids. I would never want to be the guy who tries to dissuade couples from getting hitched (no one listens to that guy, anyhow), but I would love to be the counselor who helps a new couple get a clearer picture of how life together will be different for them, what they might anticipate from each other and from the world around them, and how they can grow to support, honor, and nurture each other through life more effectively. Family planning (even in the event of an unexpected surprise) is incredibly important in a similar fashion. No matter how it starts, family can work out. It must be said that life doesn't work out as well via a series of accidents as it does with some thoughtful and sensitive planning, patience, and the guidance of an experienced therapist.
#14 Once that family or marriage is up-and-running, counseling can help with the occasional bump in the road. I have worked to help couples restore relationships many times, I have assisted families through separations and divorces when they were inevitable, and I have worked with parents to help them manage child behavior problems. In either case, remaining committed to working things out is always the best, and entering counseling well before a problem becomes a crisis is also best. So frequently, success in relationships has to do with addressing problems early and often. Similarly with parents, I must reinforce that seeing a counselor to help you address child behavior is not a sign of parenting weakness, but one of wisdom. Child-rearing is an emotionally complex task and should never be done alone. Use all of the supports you can to ensure your children get the best version of you. I have a lot of experience working with parents who are simply frustrated with behavior and do not want the behavior to continue. My job is usually in part, to educate and coach, but also to normalize the experience of feelings associated with certain problems. Kids are a challenge, period.
#15 Consolidating life experiences and moving forward is an important part of learning from life and developing strength from our own lives, but it does not typically happen with natural ease. Counseling can help you outline the twists and turns in your life, identify what actually happened, and how you made it through. Counseling can also help you identify a sort of blindness you may have toward your inherent or learned strengths (or weaknesses). You could learn about unrecognized competencies or gifts. You could also learn to appreciate yourself, as a result of good experiences, or as the result of perseverance through adversity.
I really hope this list helps others identify some areas where counseling can help. The only regret I have in looking over this list is that I cannot perfectly list all of the things that are possible in a counseling experience. Recognize that not all counseling experiences are equal. Most counseling clients get more out of the process when they participate enthusiastically and with purpose, but a good therapist or counselor can sometimes help you find that sense of purpose should you be missing it. If you have any questions about counseling or how it could help you, feel free to contact me. Life is complicated, but it can be very rich. Be good to yourself, and take some time to consider how you might be stronger by being open to seeing a counselor.
Brock Caffee, LCMFT is a Marriage and Family Therapist, licensed in California and Kansas. He has over a decade of practice experience. He has a private practice in Lawrence, KS. In addition to his therapy experience, he is an experienced lecturer, clinical supervisor and manager. He has life experiences that have given him insight into the world of parenting, divorce, step-parenting, and addiction recovery. At home he has three children, two dogs, and a very patient wife.
Parenting Disclaimer: As I mentioned earlier, parenting can be complicated and difficult. Please understand that not all families are prepared to change tactics, and not all children will demonstrate the same preparedness for behavior change. If you feel that additional guidance may be necessary, please contact a family therapist in your area. If you are in the Lawrence, Kansas City, or Topeka area, you may contact me (firstname.lastname@example.org) for a free telephone consultation.
The views expressed in this blog are meant to help foster perspective, to entertain, and to be fun when possible. Any intent to regard the blog as counseling or therapy constitutes misuse. Advice offered in the blog should be considered only if consistent with your family values and with advice given by your own mental health professionals. Please seek consultation with a mental health professional in your area if you experience distress or feel you are in crisis. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255.