Sometimes You Just Need a Good Listening-To……Should I Try Counselling?

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Have you ever wondered what it might be like to have someone listen non-judgmentally and with interest to what you think/ believe/ want/ hope for/ fear/ hate/ distrust/ desire/ need? Or even just someone to bounce ideas off of?  Just be there while you cry?  Help you find creative or practical solutions to your struggles?  That is the very definition of a counsellor.

But isn’t counselling just for people who are crazy?  Depressed? Alcoholics?

Sure, I would definitely recommend counselling for those struggling with mental health issues, those stuck in negative patterns, those experiencing crisis or those living highly stressful, anxious lives; however counseling can also work wonders for the everyday person who wants to think, feel, problem solve, create and grow in the presence of, and with help from another caring and thoughtful person.  Maybe it’s a habit you want to break. Perhaps you’re struggling with family conflict. Or maybe you’re unhappy in your job, and need some guidance in figuring out what career will really make you happy. Sometimes people just want to get something off of their chest, or ask philosophical questions.  Most often, someone is struggling to understand a situation or needing support through a difficult time or major change.  Counselling can be a great option in these situations!

So what’s stopping you? The way counseling is portrayed in movies and TV shows can paint a judgy, awkward and pretentious picture It is also often used interchangeably with the word “therapy” — the differences between the two lie in the certification of the provider, as well as the presenting topic – more medical and diagnosed mental health concerns should seek therapy.  But in reality, while there may be a couch or a comfy chair, therapists are not detached, distracted listeners who charge an arm and a leg for an hour of their time and come out with a statement full of judgment or a diagnosis that paints you with a negative brush. Just because you receive counseling doesn’t automatically mean that something is wrong with you.  A lot of people seek out a counsellor to help them with a goal or dream, and still others for support as they hope to help others through their struggles.

Seeing a counsellor also doesn’t mean you’ll need medication, group therapy or extensive, lifelong treatment programs.  While all of the above are a possibility depending on the situation, a good counselor will start with the gentlest strategies to find success, and only work with what you are comfortable with.  A good counsellor listens, helps you find your strengths, identifies thoughts, feelings, questions and answers and helps you to realize the changes or directions you would like to go.  They support you during your difficult times, celebrate your good times and guide you through goal setting, reflection and problem solving.

It’s also easy for people to get hung up on the cost of therapy — which can run the gamut from $80 to $200 for a session (usually an hour in length). Therapy is expensive, but it’s an investment and you should be getting a return on your investment. There are other things that are expensive, that we don’t question the finances of so much, such as hiring a good attorney if you’re going through a divorce.  Also, often private health care plans will cover the cost of counselling sessions, and sometimes companies or employers will have Employee Assistance Plans for the same purpose.  I often tell people that they are going to “work through” their challenges one way or another: spending money on counselling is a good investment as opposed to alcohol, shopping, shoes, gambling, food or other distraction techniques…

“But aren’t therapists just people you’re paying to listen to your problems?” you may ask. While compassionate listening is an important part of the counseling process, therapists have master’s and doctorate degrees and have spent years studying how people change, relationships, work environments, conflict resolution and communication. We spend years living in those systems and training in those systems so we can help you get to that part of yourself to understand the things that are driving your habits and choices.  There are many theories, strategies and evidence based practices based on solid research that these professionals can draw upon once the client is ready to move on to problem solving and/ or change.

So how would you even start?  The first step to starting therapy is to find a therapist. If cost is an important factor, you could ask your insurance company for a list of therapists who would be considered in-network. There are also government organizations and Not-For-Profit support services.  Still more private offices may offer “sliding-scale” programs.  Churches and schools also have people trained in counselling. You could also try searching the internet, yellow-pages, social media or friends to ask for a list of mental health professionals. Especially if you are looking for a therapist for a particular issue (i.e. divorce, weight loss, grief), referrals from friends/ family or specific internet searches may be the way to go!  There are also more and more online options (cyber-counselling) over email popping up to offer counseling at your pace, place and convenience.  Check out www.knowledge-power.ca/cyber_services.php   for more info!

One of the most important aspects of counselling is the counsellor/ client “fit.”  Not everyone clicks with everyone…don’t let this be a reason for you to give up!  No different than your doctor, vet or employer, you need to find the person you connect with, trust and respect.  It’s okay not to like a person’s style and find the best person to help you!  All counsellors have a different personality, belief system, and style….shop around!  Even ask ahead of time some questions about their strategies, style or beliefs about your struggle…a good counsellor will talk with you and take time to answer these questions!

There is also the question of how many sessions one should go?  Some people want to have a speedy experience, where the problem is solved in six sessions or less. If this is you, then you should look for a “solutions-focused therapist.”  It is still important to keep in mind that you can’t expect that all problems can be solved in a short period of time, as some situations take longer to sort through. Meanwhile, other people can end up going to therapy for years, either because the situation has never been resolved, or because they like being able to come in for an hour each week to talk about life – either one is okay and you can decide what is best for you.

So…what is the first session like? Some therapists do a first session by getting an assessment of the current problem. Some will do history, relationship or background information gathering.  Others will listen and let you guide the process, and still others will engage using metaphors or thought-provoking questions.  It isn’t just a one-way relationship to be sure….you need to have an idea of what you would like to talk about, and what you would like to get out of therapy.  Be sure to communicate that desire…you’re the boss and the therapy should meet your need!  A counsellor’s job is to help guide people where they would like to go.  As a trust and rapport builds, this sharing and reflection will become more natural.

The purpose of counselling is to build. Grow. Repair. Remake. Lift. Understand. Seek. Answer. Identify. Feel. Live. Smile. Listen. Be.

If you need or want any of those things….give it a try!

Empathy: What to Say When You Don’t Know What to Say…

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“I know exactly how you feel….”

No, you don’t.  Even if you’ve experienced the very same thing….it’s different.  You aren’t me.  You don’t have my personality or my support systems or my coping strategies (or lack thereof).  You don’t know what it reminds me of or makes me fear, and you don’t have the same feelings or hopes going forward.  We may have the same plot, but it’s not the same story…

So how can we help?  As caring and connected friends, family members, colleagues or classmates, we are often faced with the loss, chaos, tragedy and sadness of others…and we want to help!  We are genuinely hurting for them and are caring human beings that aim to comfort, to heal, to fix.  We share our own experiences in hopes of showing empathy, progress or finding common ground. We turn to comforting phrases (time heals all wounds….) and actions (casseroles, pies and greeting cards) in hopes of feeling we have somehow helped; but the truth is, there often isn’t “comfort” to be found for us or for them.  There isn’t a “reason” that makes sense and comfort food brings little comfort.  Don’t get me wrong….kindnesses will always be remembered, no question. Continue showing you care, but I also give you the gift of what to SAY…

When we find ourselves hoping to help, there is a powerful way to comfort.  In Psychology, it’s called “validation”…and it is the heart and soul of the counselling process.  It is the foundation from which we can build.  It opens us to our vulnerabilities and in that we find our resilience.  Everyone else calls it empathy.  But empathy isn’t always knowing exactly how someone feels in any given situation…it’s recognizing what it must be like to feel that way….even if it isn’t me or it’s never happened to me.  It’s getting that you might not get it, but you care about THAT person, so you care all the same.  It’s being totally and completely present with that person while they hurt.  It sounds like this:  “I’m sorry this happened….it must be so difficult for you.”  In a genuine, thoughtful way.

Yessssssss……it really is.   When a person hears this type of phrase they find relief….someone understands that this. just. sucks.  It’s hard.  Thank you…that’s what I needed someone to understand.  I don’t need a solution.  There likely isn’t one.  I don’t need to make meaning or try to find the “reasons” everything happens for.  I’m not made whole by similar situations or advice.  Memories and music and musings are meaningless, when what I really want to hear is “this must be so hard” followed by, ” I cannot fix this for you, but I can be with you while you go through it.” I finally feel heard.  My heart connects with yours and says, “ya, you totally get it.” Even if you totally don’t get it, you get that it’s hard and it’s not fair and it sucks and it’s confusing and you’re sorry that I have to go through it.  I clearly hear that I am not alone (which is the worst part…not just physically alone, but alone in the understanding of what it’s like to……..)  Those things help.  Every time. Trust me.

It seems to simple right?  Just “be” (normally and in the routine of life) with them as they go on the journey of grief or learning or change?   Say, “I’m sorry that happened….that must be really hard for you” when the time is right (silence is golden also…..never underestimate the power of quiet).  Be and say these things over and over in various forms….validate that whatever it is, it’s hard.  Let them know that you are here to listen.  Let them know that you cannot imagine what it would be like.  Tell them if they ever want to talk about it, you’ll try to understand and help with whatever they ask for.  Leave them alone if they want to be alone.  Stay with them if they want someone near. Find the balance between the normal and the new normal…

Even with the best of intentions (perspective, faith, hope, grace, ?), the following statements are not helpful……yet.  Someday, yes (that’s why they are so popular and comforting to the rest of us), but not just yet:

Everything happens for a reason

Time heals all wounds

When one door closes, another opens

I know exactly how you feel

You think that’s bad, one time I…..

It’ll all work out for the best, you’ll see

Something better is coming along

This is actually a blessing in disguise

They are in a better place

You’re strong….you’ll be fine

Instead try the following as you see fit:

I’m sorry this is happening

This must be so hard for you

I can only imagine what you are going through

I’m here if you’d like to talk

What’s the hardest part?

It is hard when it just doesn’t make sense

I will be here with you as you go through this

On a final note, we often say “Let me know if I can help” which is thoughtful.  However, if someone is struggling, they often don’t know what to ask for nor do they want to burden others.  It can be easier for them if you give specific suggestions as to things they might need.  Food is good, time is better. Both is perfect.

If you have a genuine heart and the right intention, they’ll know…

A.