What is Healing, and how does Counseling help?

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People have an idea that “counseling” equals “skills acquisition,” and that there are workbook pages involved, and plenty of ‘em. I will tell you right now that when someone comes to me telling me the story of how they are pretty lazy and need to try harder and have more tasks to complete, that is the very person to whom I will never assign homework. And this is why: because if healing were merely a matter of reading a list of skills, a book or several books, completing a task list, or making time for “self-care,” we would all be feeling pretty good.

Yes, healing involves the work of learning and practicing new ideas and new skills, but this is far from the whole story. Trying to learn and practice “self care” without real healing work will result in joyless repetitions of “stuff that is good for me” like exercise, eating plans and cleanses, yoga or meditation practice, prescription or herbal medication, spa days, etc. We resolve to do better next time, feel guilty because we’re not doing enough to feel good, and then quit anyway, or else we use any type of self-care activities to paper over deep pain and avoid the real work—grieving loss by acknowledging our deepest hurts, fears, hopes, pains, and violations, and addressing the loss with every part of our being; our heart, thoughts, body, mind, and spiritual nature.

All of those things that you want to stop doing—getting involved in difficult relationships, letting your anger off the chain, eating food that you know makes you feel bad, spending hours in mindless screen time, drinking too much alcohol, using too many drugs—all those things will fade out of your life organically as you make the commitment to REALLY caring for yourself and really KNOWING yourself and your body.

You know what happens when you make a resolution and fling yourself at change head-on: nothing. You can manage to make change by sheer willpower for a period of time, but always you will slide back into old patterns, hence the massive failure of all restrictive diets. OR, you will be “dry drunk,” maintaining weight loss, sobriety, etc, by will and adhering rigidly to rules, but continuing to feel unhappy, bored, stale, dry, and to annoy those around you with your quirky little ways.

In counseling, you do the healing work of understanding what needs to be grieved. What have you lost? How do you make sense of it? What are the strategies you developed as a child to manage problems that you weren’t equipped to understand or address? What happened to you? Often, we don’t know. As adults, we are on emotional auto-pilot, aware that we feel disconnected in some way, that life isn’t working out the way we imagined. Or, we’re so emotionally battered that we never had a chance to imagine our adult life anyway. But still, here we are, plugging away, trying to feel better.

If you feel anxious, sad “underneath” most of the time, harried, overwhelmed with too many “unsolvable” problems, looping around to the same old patterns over and over, mystified by how poorly your primary relationships have gone, despite your best efforts, you likely have some old losses and hurts that need loving attention. In counseling, in real healing work, your Counselor will help you identify what you’ve lost, and the strengths you have always had that have helped you survive your losses. You will learn to dismantle internal patterns held in place by guilt, self-criticism and self-doubt, unwept sadness, unraged anger, and the tomfool things that other people have told you about yourself. She or he will offer excellent listening (no judging and no advice) that helps you unravel your story and finally grieve.

It’s always amazing and miraculous to me, every time, when my clients begin to see real change in their lives. Suddenly, they “find” time to get out their paints again, to go to the river for a swim, to prepare a delicious meal for themselves, to read a good book. They find that they want to stop smoking weed every day, and are able to let it go easily, not because they “should,” but because they don’t like feeling numb any more. Relationships change—sometimes improving, with more peace, understanding, and fun, and sometimes fading away without a lot of drama. Problems that have been confronted over and over, with no resolution, end naturally, with no confrontation involved. Miraculous.

A good way to start, that you can do on your own whenever you feel like it, is simply to check in with your body. What is the name of the emotion (if any) you are feeling right now? Is there any pain in your body? Tension? What are your thoughts telling you? Take a moment to notice what’s happening, name it in words, then take a nice breath and relax your muscles as much as possible on the exhale. 30 seconds tops. Try that once a day (more is better, but even once a week is a good start!), and see what starts changing.