Original post at http://umclead.com/you-need-counseling/
I sat in the big comfy chair like I had done so many times before. I knew the question that was coming. “Brandon, what is it that you’re anxious about?” I was a sophomore in college. There was plenty to be anxious about. I was anxious about my grades, where I would fit in, what classes I would take, where I would go after college, if I would be able to find a job, if that job would pay well, and this was all mixed in with a difficult relationship I was going through.
Then came the next question. “What do you need to do? What is in your control?” I then shared concrete actions that I knew I could take in order to make sure things were taken care of. “The rest,” she answered, “is out of your control. What good comes from your worrying and anxiety?” I knew nothing good would come from my worrying but I thought to myself, “I have to worry. Worrying shows I care.”
I had fooled myself into thinking that by constantly having these worries in my mind, it meant that I cared. If I wasn’t constantly thinking about what could go wrong, then something really would go wrong, and I wouldn’t be prepared for it. If I just continued to play the worst-case scenarios over and over in my head, then I would know exactly how to respond if they did happen. Surely it was better to be a pessimist and be pleasantly surprised if something actually turned out well than to be an optimist and be hurt if things didn’t turn out well.
She kept challenging me though. “What good comes from worrying? Why work yourself up over a worst possible scenario when it might not even happen? Why be so worried of others wounding you that you wound yourself?” I grew to understand that my thoughts and actions didn’t make sense, but it was my go-to response. For some reason, the paralyzing psychological pain I was inflicting upon myself felt safer than allowing some person or some event to cause me pain.
She was my counselor at the University of South Carolina. USC and many other schools recognize the pressures that college students go through and so they offer counseling sessions that are often free or at low cost to students. At first, I was hesitant to go to counseling. Counseling is for people with problems, crazy people, right? I then found out that many of my friends who I looked up to had gone to counseling and were still going. I learned that counseling isn’t about being crazy or unstable. Counseling is about realizing that sometimes you can’t figure everything out on your own. Counseling isn’t about your problems. It’s about better learning who you are.
My counseling sessions at USC, combined with supportive friends, family, and pastors, helped me realize that my response to stress up to that point was unhealthy. I wanted to be perfect. I didn’t want to show any weakness. I didn’t want to be vulnerable. I wanted to be in control. The questions my counselor asked weren’t new questions, nor were they overly profound. Her experience and knowledge in counseling, however, allowed her to know which questions to ask, how to ask them, and when to ask them. After asking those questions often enough, I learned the real answers to them. I learned that the primary question she was asking me was a question Christ asks us: “Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” It was the help of counseling that allowed me to finally listen.
My counselor was willing to listen to me, and in turn I was eventually willing to listen to myself and to God. It was through that experience that I began to give up control in areas of my life that I sought so strongly to control. I began to worry less and pray more. I looked not for what could go wrong in my life, but for what could go right. It was that release of control that finally led me to my call to ordained ministry. I’m not saying that I wouldn’t have found my calling or found my way out of that darkness without counseling, but the road would have been longer and more arduous.
I have seen too many people suffer from depression, anxiety, or mental illness only to have their wounds made deeper by Christians who respond by saying, “If you pray and have enough faith you’ll make it through this.” I firmly believe in the power and importance of prayer but sometimes the answer to our prayers may be access to the counseling and medication that is necessary. I was fortunate to get past my anxiety through counseling and a supportive environment, but many people suffer from worse anxiety and depression than I experienced. Still others have the added difficulty of underlying mental illness.
Seeking counseling is not a sign of weakness; it is a sign of strength. Since my sophomore year in college, I have continued to meet with a counselor, and I would encourage everyone to do the same. Counselors, psychiatrists, and psychologists have training that pastors do not. Some pastors have been trained in counseling, but most have not. A mentor of mine once told me that as a pastor he is willing to meet with a couple, family, or individual about the same issue or tension three times. After that, he then refers them to a counseling center. This is not because he is lazy, or simply doesn’t want to deal with an issue. It is because he is aware of where his strengths and his training are and where there are others more gifted to help in a certain situation.
We all have stresses and anxiety. We all have situations where we feel overwhelmed. We all struggle with our identity as persons, Christians, spouses, parents, or whatever other roles you may fill. We should not and cannot go through all of it alone. We ought to seek the resources we have. We need our friends, our family, our church, our pastors, and sometimes we also need counseling.
Photo used by Creative Commons from flickr user Pascal.