A generic sad person (or couple), usually under duress, is sitting in a waiting room [insert ‘soulless and stark’ or ‘overdone floral’ before the words ‘waiting room’].
Dr so-and-so Therapist opens the door to welcome the person into the room [insert ‘middle-aged man with glasses and monotone voice’ or ‘short overweight big-haired woman with a fake cheery smile’ or ‘cold’ or ‘hippie’ and ‘glasses’ for any gender].
The person either lies down on a couch or sits in a chair. The Therapist begins with either silence, or a general question and then sits looking either bored, or intensely at the person. Over the session, the person blurts out problems, often defensively or humorously. The Therapist does some note-taking and nodding. They then offer one of the following
A magical analysis demonstrating a Yoda-like level of wisdom and insight into the human psyche.
Some kind of ludicrous suggestion that seems incredibly unlikely to help anyone, and usually doesn’t.
A deep and meaningful assessment causing the person to cry, all issues then miraculously resolved.
A silly intervention or nonsense response indicating they have missed the point entirely and implying that mental health support in itself is useless.
A revealing of their own issues and personal brand of crazy
The person leaves, comic moment achieved or meaningfulness of their lives demonstrated. Goes back to their ‘real’ life without having been helped or experiencing any desired changes, sometimes even worse off.
Camera fades out…
Even in movies and TV shows where there is a somewhat more realistic and in-depth approach to counselling, there is always the sniff of some kind of inappropriateness such as rescuing a vulnerable child or a sexual relationship in the air (Don’t let this put you off watching In Treatment or The Sopranos, but it is tiresome for us).
None of this has much to do with reality.
Television VS a real-life Counsellor
Given the usual depictions and accompanying stigma, it makes sense to me that people generally don’t seek help until they are really badly suffering. When we are suffering we don’t have the energy to look for the ‘right’ therapist, we just desperately want someone to fix it. It’s so extraordinarily scary. We only want the pain to end and to feel ‘normal’.
Here’s the truth: Counselling isn’t supposed to be excruciating and painful and certainly not useless. It can be extremely challenging at times, and it can be a letdown if you don’t have a good ‘you-focused’ counsellor, but it can also be:
A wild, woolly and wonderful journey of discovery that can change your life.
In Australia, the particular pathway to seeking help for emotional strain and drain is to go to a GP and then move forward from there. Part 2 of this blog post will detail some concerns I have with that process, so for now I will suggest something you may not have considered before.
An Alternative process for seeking a therapist…
1) Firstly, if you’re IN the moment now, then just survive in the ways you usually do and wait until you have a window of relief. Feelings usually aren’t constant. They come in waves. If you are not currently riding a wave of feeling the absolute worst, and you are not currently in crisis, then you might consider this next step:
2) Try to make a commitment to healing through counselling. Not 'if I find one I might...' but 'WHEN I find a right one, someone who gives me hope even if i'm unsure, I will go on this journey...'.
3) Forget all these psychobabble words like ‘disordered thinking’ ‘anxiety’ ‘depression’ ‘trauma’. Think about what is happening TO YOU. Did you lose someone or something dear? Have you had an illness onset? Is your relationship in trouble? Are you unable to sleep? Are you crying uncontrollably and unexpectedly? Do you feel lost? Afraid for no reason? Have you been abused? Have you experienced discrimination and it’s made you question your value, your worth in society? Do you feel like your identity is blurry or in a fog?
What does it feel like to you, in your body, mind and heart?
Now ask yourself this and perhaps write down the answers: How do I already get through every day dealing with this problem? What are the things that are helping you survive already? In what ways do you resist the pain that work for you and what ways don't work so well? What would you like to stay the same and what would you like to be different?
4) Believe there is value in your ways of coping, look over what you've written, and then ask yourself: ‘how best can a Counsellor help me expand on my preferred ways of dealing with this?’ These answers might give you a clearer idea of who to look for. For example, do you keep a diary or find writing helps you? Then perhaps someone who incorporates email/letters/journalling into their work can help. Does Mindfulness appeal to you? You might seek a professional who can teach you about being more 'in the moment'. Do you connect or process in more abstract ways? Then maybe an art therapist, sand tray therapist or someone with a creative bent can help you best.
A lot of counsellors incorporate different skills and training into their work to respond best to the people in front of them (that's what I do), so don't feel locked into these descriptions, it's just a starting point.
5) Once you have a clearer sense of your own experience:
Ask some friends or family or someone who works in mental health for a recommendation to a therapist. Seriously, it’s ok. Ask around, don’t be ashamed. A lot of people find when they start telling a few trusted people about their troubles, the most overwhelming response is of support and solidarity, and you may also have the added benefit of finding you are not alone in whatever it is you are going through. We are so used to pretending everything is fine all the time it can be a huge relief when a brave person tells us when they aren't fine- vulnerability can be a wonderful thing to share with those we love and who love us.
Follow up a referral from a GP, other professional or friend by checking out their website and/or calling ahead to ask some questions. Did they tell you a course of CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) would help you? Ask the professional or someone who works in mental health what that actually means, and then decide for yourself.
Carry with you this awareness: Unfortunately, no one has a secret magical ‘cure’ for these kinds of problems. You know yourself and your situation best. You have a right to know something about any Counsellor or Psychologist and the way they work and if it they are likely to suit you before you pay to see them.
You can also ring a mental health hotline or a ‘your situation-specific’ information line (such as 1800RESPECT for Family Violence) and ask if they have any connections or recommendations, or even to help you figure out who and what intervention might fit for you.
Distance from home will be a big factor in whether you continue with counselling. Jump on Google or ring around your local area.
Cost will also be a big factor. Consider your budget. There is enormous variation in the fees of mental health professionals so it pays to look around. High fees aren't necessarily an indicator of best (more on this in the next blog post).
Perhaps online counselling is a better option if you have no time or want out of hours support at reasonable prices; you can’t travel or Australia’s access laws prevent you from being able to see someone in a particular venue; you have trouble with talking or can’t talk; or you prefer writing or a combination of writing and talking. Or perhaps you really need to be in a room with someone. It's worth considering how you generally experience, process and learn the best.
So… my number #1 tip for choosing a Counsellor is:
Trust your gut
One of the most vital aspects of whether you will experience the changes you want by seeking support is your relationship with the therapist.
There is no ‘correct treatment’ for assistance. Counselling is a deeply personal experience. It isn’t a medical intervention. You need to like and trust the person you are sitting with and talking to.
You need to believe or at least have a strong sense of hope within you that this person (or team) can help you, that they aren’t judging you, and that if they challenge you they will do so in ways that are safe and meaningful.
You need to want to commit to the process.
You also need to feel OK to speak up when something does offend you or isn’t working for you. You want to feel that your own expertise is being included as well anything else you may bring into the room- skills, lists, drawings, diary entries, art, stories: What’s right for you won’t be right for everyone.
None of this has anything to do with the medical profession.
It has to do with the Profession of You.
My own little story…
A few years ago I was seeking a counsellor during my Post-Graduate Counselling studies a few years ago. All mental health workers should do this (and in many countries it's compulsory). It’s important that we know what it feels like to be on ‘both sides’ and also practice what we preach in terms of seeking help when we need it.
Let's say it together: There is no shame in seeking help!!
Regardless of my beliefs on seeking a counsellor, it doesn’t mean I wasn’t nervous and- yes- even a little shameful about it, such is the pressure from our society. I’d like to acknowledge that it is really hard for you too, and congratulate you on taking the step in the first place.
Initially I had a couple of sessions with someone who was very nice, but I just didn’t gel with. I had to find the right fit for me.
Then I asked a few friends. I ended up getting a recommendation from a friend whom I share some similarities with and a strong connection. After my friend told me about this therapist and the ways she helped her, I looked up her website. I liked what I saw and it related to what was going on for me, so I gave her a call for a brief pre-consultation. This was helpful in terms of checking how she works with people and ‘feeling’ if we might connect.
I then went to my first session. I was invited to talk about what had brought me there, and I felt really heard in that. She then told me more about her own style and she respected that I was also in the field, which I liked. Afterwards I checked in with my gut as well as my brain, and I decided to continue from there. I felt hopeful and even a little excited, which kept me going even when I didn't feel like it or a session was really tough.
The experience of working with her was both professionally and personally nothing short of life changing.
I believe the same can happen for you and your loved ones.
Take care. OXO
I hope this has helped give you a better idea of how to find the right counsellor for your needs. If you would like to receive future blog posts, please sign up at www.unveiledstories.com