It’s rare that someone would come for counseling because things are going great. People typically seek support when things aren’t going well. They have painful relationships, or problematic habits or they have a big decision to make and they are unsure about which path to choose. Because people come to counseling to address difficulties, it makes sense that difficult topics would be discussed. But this is only half the story. Part of becoming a healthier person is learning to acknowledge and accept the range of human emotion. If that’s the case then joy, excitement, victory and celebration must be welcome in the counseling room as well. These experiences are not to be relegated to the cheap seats while pain, sorrow and anxiety somehow get bumped to the first row. Sometimes we fear that the good stuff is unworthy of discussion in the counseling room. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because those feelings seem shallow or we worry that discussing them is a waste of time. But isn’t experiencing the good stuff what we seek from counseling in the first place? Aren’t we coming for more joy, more love, more enthusiasm and a more genuine experience of the world? It’s ok to feel good. It’s ok to share that with someone who cares. It’s hard to party alone! So yes we will talk about disappointment, sorrow and confusion, but we will also talk about fun, laughter, and celebration, because these too are part of what it means to be human.
One of the great challenges we face in developing youth is helping them to become independent problem solvers. Often when we are encountering struggling children or adolescents the knee jerk reaction is to quickly assess the situation and offer suggestions on how the kid can fix what is bothering them. This can be appropriate during times when the kid is overwhelmed and is unable to process a situation, but at other times this strategy is counterproductive. Why? Because often as adults we are either attempting to fix a problem that isn’t there or we are attempting to fix the wrong problem. Here’s an example I recently experienced. I saw a kid standing outside a classroom where I volunteer with head down and shoulders slumped over. He was clearly upset. I attempted to engage him by observing that he seemed sad. It would have been easy for me to guess several things that were upsetting him but I tried to start by getting him to explain what was bothering him. He said that the teacher was not helping him. Interesting… but why so upset? He went on to describe that the teacher was helping other students but not him. Now we are getting somewhere. I don’t want to exaggerate or speculate too much on what was going on in his mind but my hunch is that his upset had more to do with feeling rejected or ignored or left out than it had to do with not being told how to do an assignment. I could have told him how to do the assignment, but the value of our conversation was in helping him feel connected and helping him figure out what was making him so upset. I suggested that if he felt like he was being ignored maybe I could go with him and we could ask for help together. He balked at this idea. That’s ok. He returned to his classroom and maybe he got the help he needed or maybe he didn’t, but I hope that at least for a minute he felt understood and cared for. Helping kids feel understood and cared for won’t solve all their problems but it’s a good place to start.
It’s good to be back in practice with a brand new space in Happy Valley, renewing the adventure that began several years ago. I’m very excited to welcome clients into this new office. The location is fantastic with a park and library just across the street. There is a gym next door and I will be sharing space with aqua float spa. I’m grateful to the people who have supported me during my time away and now I’m ready to get back into it. I have missed my clients, their resilience, humor and courage and I’m eager to connect once more.
Often people come to counseling wanting tips, strategies, ideas and techniques for how to live a better life. Sometimes I can offer something that seems to be what they were looking for. When this happens I may feel intelligent or helpful or clever but this self-importance fades as quickly as the “quick fix” strategy itself.
Knowledge is a good thing, but Love is a better thing. My hunch is that while people may be asking for information, what they are really seeking is love. The Apostle Paul said “knowledge puffs up but love builds up.” So while information may make people feel good, it rarely solves problems. Love is patient…and kind…and I’m learning that love is also slow. Perhaps it is the difference between the slow cooker and the microwave.
I’m working on this slow cooker kind of love both personally and professionally. Right now I can say with integrity that I am moving from the microwave phase to the oven phase. Thanks for your patience. Also…doesn't BBQ sound really good right now?
I recently gave a presentation to a group of students on burnout and how to care for yourself when working in the health professions. One student asked me a question that I have not been able to shake. (This is one of my favorite things about working with students. They are willing to ask tough questions and expect good answers.) Her question at once filled my heart with sorrow and immense gratitude.
I had been sharing some practical tips on how to take care of ourselves. We had discussed the importance of rest, nutrition, and exercise. I began to discuss the importance of having people that you can depend on and who can mentor you. A student raised her hand and politely asked “What do you do if you don’t have people like that in your life.” She wasn’t being dramatic. She wasn’t asking a rhetorical question. She was lost and was seeking answers. She genuinely wanted to know where to start the process. My heart broke. I clumsily staggered along trying to say something that would be meaningful but my ideas felt hollow.
How have we become so disconnected as a society that young people must actively look for mentors? I don’t know the details of her story. I don’t know what resources she has access to or whether she is making the most of her opportunities. What I do know is that she feels like she doesn’t have anyone she can trust and that hurts.
As I have reflected on her question I have also been filled with gratitude for the countless people who have mentored me through some very difficult seasons of life. They have been professionals, teachers, coaches, pastors, family and friends. Perhaps they don’t realize how much they have meant to me. Perhaps I don’t either. One thing is certain, I never had to look far to find someone who was willing to listen and offer encouragement.
So what does this all mean? What do we do with it? The answer is not another program. The answer is not another agency. The answer is more agency, as people, as individuals. We need more people who are willing to take steps necessary to be there for those who are hurting, and lonely. I am speaking to myself as much as to you dear reader. Very few young people have the knowledge or courage to go ask for help, which is why it is imperative that adults take steps to be available and present. Here are some ways to get started.
I need mentors and you do too. Sometimes I forget that I need to be a mentor as well. The need for one another is central to the human experience. This need for connection and encouragement will never go away. What I hope does go away is the question about where it can be found.
Are you afraid of success? It may be a strange question to consider, but the fear of success may be a more common obstacle than we realize. Let’s explore two areas where, paradoxically our fear of success may keep us from achieving goals: business and relationships. There are many things we want in our occupations. More money, better hours, more prestige, less stress, more flexibility, better relationships with coworkers, and often to simply complete the task at hand in a way that will please our supervisor or colleagues.
The consequences of professional failure can feel dire. Lost income, lost respect, increased stress and disappointing ourselves or others. Often our fear of failure can keep us from taking risks and growing. Could the same be true for our fear of success? The fears associated with failure are more obvious than the fears associated with success, but the fear of success can be every bit as detrimental. Exploring the following questions and answers can help us clarify how our fear of success may be impeding our growth.
If I am successful with this what will happen next? Am I prepared? Equipped? Trained? Can I handle it? Professional success may lead to increased responsibility and stress.
What if success is a disappointment? We can strive for years for a promotion, accomplishment, or recognition. What if it doesn’t feel as good as we hoped it would while daydreaming?
Once my task has been completed will I still be useful to my company/team/boss? If our sense of identity is attached to completing a specific task we may doubt our value once the task is complete.
How might our fear of success in relationships keep us stuck?
If I am successful in this area will my significant other hold me to that standard all the time? Do I want that? Perhaps the fear that we won’t consistently be successful keeps us from being successful at all.
Will we have anything to talk about if we aren’t arguing about this issue? Perhaps the struggle defines your relationship.
What will happen if things keep going well in this relationship? More vulnerability? Marriage? Do I want that? Does she or he want that? Intimacy and deepening relationships can bring both joy and terror.
Next time you’re feeling stuck it may be worth asking what you are afraid of. You may discover that success is far more frightening than failure. What purpose does your fear of success serve? What does it protect you from? What does it keep you from exploring or considering? How does it keep you from growing? These may be difficult questions to answer, but the answers may lead to meaningful insights. Perhaps the most compelling reason we fear success:
I wish I could make decisions for my clients. There are instances when solutions are obvious and it appears the only missing ingredient is the courage to try something scary and new. Then I look at my own life and think about my own struggles. There are probably people who wish they could make decisions for me. Do they see obvious solutions to the issues that cause me to struggle? I recant. I don’t want the responsibility of making decisions for my clients. I have my own life and one life is enough, thank you very much.
Take initiative. The best way to make progress is to engage the process. Sometimes people come into counseling with the hope or expectation that by simply being in the counseling room their life will improve. It rarely works this way. There is a reason counseling is not on infomercials. There are no magic potions.
Decide how you would like your life to be different. The clearer you can be about what your improved life would look like the better your chances are of coming up with a plan to get there.
Tell your counselor what you are looking for or needing. Your counselor can’t read your mind. He or she should be skilled in attuning to what you may be unable to articulate but in general counselors are not clairvoyant. That wasn’t part of their curriculum. If you feel that there is something that you would like to occur in your session, let your counselor know. He or she may or may not be able to accommodate your request but at least your counselor will know where you would like things to go.
Talk about what you need to talk about. If you simply need to get something off your chest or engage in a little small talk to feel comfortable that is perfectly acceptable, but you also have permission to cut right to the chase and jump in with what you think is the most important thing to discuss.
Be open. Hopefully during counseling you will be exposed to new ways of doing things that may be uncomfortable. Give these novel ideas a chance to breathe before discarding them.
Be patient. It has been said that change is a process rather than an event. Often it is only after reflecting on the past that we realize significant progress has been made. Change can take time.
Be creative. This applies both literally and figuratively. Counseling can bring inspiration, clarity and novelty. These experiences catalyze creativity. Creativity can also be applied to establishing new ways of doing things and new ways of relating with the world.
Be courageous. Change and progress can be scary. Courage enables you to take the necessary steps toward your goals.
Journal. You may have interesting insights or gain new perspectives during your time in counseling. You may think that you will remember these insights forever and maybe you will. Or maybe you won’t. Writing down the wisdom you are accumulating helps solidify your progress in your own mind and will serve as an encouraging reminder of how far you have come.
Be punctual. Arriving on time allows you to be fully focused on the session rather than feeling embarrassed about being late or angry about traffic.
Be honest. Counselors are held to a high standard of confidentiality. With a few exceptions, which your counselor can explain, what is said in the counseling room stays in the counseling room. Sort of like Vegas, minus the gambling, alcohol, and regret.
Have fun. Counseling can be serious and intense but that doesn’t it mean it can’t be fun. A sense of humor can make the most intimidating issues feel manageable.
White noise is deafening. It’s so innocuous that it passes your awareness undetected. Its gentle yet persistent assault is so intense you become even more deaf to it as time passes. Whether the noise is on or off you are unsure. It seems quiet. Then the power goes out.
As your computer powers down, the TV goes dark and the lights disappear you realize the noise had definitely been present, but did you hear it?
What is the white noise in your life? Have you accepted as normal something that is really just noise? What would experiencing silence mean for you?
I hope your power goes out.
Lately I've felt inspired. Not because of anything going on in Sochi or Washington D.C. Not by a great song, moving speech, or new documentary. I like those things but they’re not what I’m writing about. The courageous souls who come to counseling have the power to warm my heart and tie it in knots at the same time. These people tackle some of the most daunting issues imaginable. Rather than cower in fear, or run and hide, these people search deep within themselves to find the courage to stand. They inspire me to be more courageous, tenacious, patient and kind. The resilience of these people is incredible and I am saddened and humbled that I am one of the few people to hear the beauty and intricacy of each story. I take solace in the fact that I don’t need to tell these stories. You already know them.
These people sit next to you at work. You pass them at the grocery store and while waiting in line for your coffee. They can be found in the church and the bar. They are young and old, rich and poor, and from every race, religion, sexual orientation and political party out there. Many of them don’t want you to know they are struggling. It’s embarrassing or private. Others share freely and openly, perhaps disclosing more than you feel capable to bear. But believe me you do know these people.
People do all sorts of things to obtain an inspirational high. We go to movies or concerts or hiking or listen to Tony Robbins or whatever. That’s fine. I am among the lucky few who get to open their office door and let the inspiration come flooding in. As I listen to each person describe his or her experience I am reminded that the most inspiring stories aren't in Hollywood. The most inspiring stories have faces, and at times these faces become so familiar we don’t even notice them. Perhaps you have seen one of these faces—maybe even today while you were shaving or putting on makeup.