When we find out that a friend or loved one has started to work out, or gone to a physical therapist, our response is usually not a disapproving, “Oh, you’re one of those people who has to go to the gym… sounds like things are pretty rough for you.” Nor is the response, “You had to get a personal trainer? You couldn’t take care of that on your own?” But, often these are the types of reactions that people get, or at least are deathly afraid of receiving, when they confide in someone that they recently started seeing a counselor.
Now, I realize that people aren’t going to start taking selfies with their counselor, but I do believe that we, as a culture, need to start rethinking the purpose of therapy. Instead of it being an act of last resort to avoid psychological collapse, it would better serve us to think about therapy as healthy activity and counselors as personal trainers who are there to assist and encourage us along the way.
If we saw therapy much more like working out, we would understand that the purpose is to grow stronger and live well.
I am not the most disciplined soul when it comes to physical exertion; especially when running a counseling practice, doing home projects, and attempting to be a decent dad and husband take up so much time. (To be honest, I also know how to scroll through Instagram, read copious amounts of whatever I can get my hands on, listen to podcasts, and I know my way around Netflix too). But, about 3 months ago, this all changed, and I started regularly working out again. I would like to say that I gathered up my will and resolved to make a healthier lifestyle choice and just went out and did it. The truth of the matter is that I started to go to the gym because I couldn’t move my elbow or arm without immense pain and some of my normal movements were restricted. I also didn’t figure out how to heal myself. I went to a physical therapist for help.
What I came to find out was that I had been overcompensating for a long time for a weak back by using my shoulders, arm, and elbow too much when I played sports, swam sometimes, and moved around in every day life. I remember when my physical therapist had me do my first pull down and told me to be aware of what muscles I was using to pull with. I noticed how much the muscles in my shoulder, arm, and elbow were engaged. She then had me try it again, but this time she told me to focus on my back muscles. She put her hand on the muscle I was supposed to use as I pulled down, and it was like a light went off. I was able to pull the weight through in a different way and it seemed to take away the pressure on my shoulders and arm.
Over the last 17 years, hundreds of patients have sat down in their first session, and in so many words asked me to help “fix” them.
But the purpose of good therapy is not to “fix” someone.
The goal of good therapy is an awareness of self.
We are preconditioned to make the same self destructive choices over and over again. I had been using my shoulder, arm, and elbow in such a way to avoid the weakness of my back. So too we as humans participate in a myriad of harmful strategies to protect ourselves from some type of pain. (Or shame, or other unenjoyable emotional/physical state.)
So, in the same way that I needed help to become aware of how I was not using my back, we need help to see how what we’re doing is actually hurting us.
we often need the help of another to become aware of the self-protective ways that we are hurting ourselves and the people around us.
Awareness of self creates the opportunity for choosing something different. When my physical therapist made me aware of how I was using my shoulder and arm and not my back, I was able to try something new. If you are experiencing pain in the deep recesses of your heart, something might be off and having someone else gently and kindly mirror back to you what might be going on can make all the difference in learning how to do life differently.
This process of becoming aware is often emotionally painful and difficult. There were a number of excruciatingly painful moments with my physical therapist as well, but in the end the relief from the chronic pain was well worth the effort. And, the beauty of therapy is that you do not have to do it all on your own – the counselor is there to be a kind guide along the way.
My hope is that when you and I hear that a loved one is seeing a counselor, that our initial reaction is, “Well, that seems pretty healthy.”
If you’re ready to start your mental health work, please feel free to contact us. We’d love to walk alongside you.