Counseling once seemed rather obscure to me. I imagined it existed for a small population of people that were removed from my little world. Then a family member began to see a therapist. And within six months, I found myself following her lead.
Several years and a few graduate school courses later, I am passionate about the value of counseling and look forward to a career in the field. My encouragement is for everyone to allow themselves the benefit of seeing a therapist at some point. And while the associated stigma seems to be decreasing, family members and friends are often still unaware of how to respond when a loved one begins therapy. How do we view ourselves within this picture? What words are helpful? What words are destructive? How can we process something we don’t necessarily understand?
Here are eight thoughts about where to start:
Ask how you can best support them. It sounds simple, but you may be surprised by how often we circumvent this one. Ask what is helpful. Ask what isn’t helpful. Maybe they won’t have much to say, and that’s okay. But maybe they will be relieved for the open door to explain what they actually need right now. Invite them to share with you the type of support they are looking for.
Listen. Listen with silence. Listen by asking follow-up questions. Listen by looking them in the eye when they speak. Listen by remembering what they said and asking them about it later. Turn off the phone, set aside distractions, and listen well.
Avoid general, simplistic, black and white statements.
“Have you tried praying about it?”
“The Bible says to be anxious for nothing, why can’t you just do that?”
“I’m sure if you just work on your relationship with God, this will get better.”
“Everyone with depression _______.”
The issues that bring anyone into counseling are complex. Respect that depth and avoid statements that belittle or simplify a need that is multifaceted. No two people are the same and they cannot be lumped together with generalities and assumptions based on their presenting troubles. Doing so will only make the individual feel patronized and misunderstood.
Know that their relationship with God likely has nothing to do with why they are in counseling. If we believe that they need counseling due to a weakness in their spiritual fiber, three destructive problems will occur: (1) They will feel judged (2) We will feel superior (3) We will the miss the point all-together. We live in a broken world, full of pain, illness and sin. And as long as we are on this side of heaven, we will experience the tangible consequences of that reality. Praise God we are saved by grace. I’m not saying that their struggle has no implications on their spiritual life, but I am saying that it is not caused by a flaw in their relationship with God. We are all equally sinful and in need of restoration. They are not struggling due to a lack of faith anymore than you got the flu last winter because you didn’t read your Bible everyday. This punishment versus reward system contradicts the loving heart of God.
Remember that the needs bringing them to counseling are as real and valid as any physical illness. If your loved one had an infection, you would never question why they were taking antibiotics. If anything, you would question them should they seem to not take the illness seriously, forgoing medication and ignoring medical advice. Whatever has led to professional counseling is as real and valid as that infection. Believe that is true and support them accordingly.
Appreciate the process. Why doesn’t God simply remove the struggle? Perhaps the process is too rich to be missed. If a woman goes to see a professional counselor because of her anxiety, she may learn new ways of coping with stress, have meaningful conversations with her spouse about problems in their communication, and recognize the need to let go of several commitments that she made out of guilt. If God simply healed her anxiety overnight, would these important thresholds have been crossed? I would suggest that God uses the process of therapy to bring about healing on multiple levels and in a way that is much more sustainable.
Ultimately, it isn’t about you - but you may play a role. When someone in our immediate family enters counseling, especially a spouse or child, thinking that it must be about us isn’t a difficult jump to make. We have to remember that a variety circumstances, beliefs and even chemical predispositions may be contributing to the cause. Let them have their time with their therapist, without requiring a run down of what was said and how they are progressing. This is their story; and while it is not about you, you may be a part of the solution. Through counseling, your spouse or child may come to recognize patterns of miscommunication in your relationship and seek to reconcile them. Maybe they will eventually ask you to attend a session so they can help you understand something about their struggle and your role in their life. Grace, compassion and love. Let those be your guideposts as your navigate your contribution to their process.
Protect and honor their story. The vulnerability of counseling requires openness and risk. As information emerges and discussions unfold, respect and honor their story. Resist the urge to use it as a topic for conversation with other people. If your loved one chooses to open up with others, let them do so in their timing and to the extent they feel comfortable sharing. If you need support, find an appropriate outlet for that. I am simply encouraging a mindful perspective that avoids gossip and protects their vulnerability.
It will never be easy to watch someone we love experience any form of struggle, but perhaps it is even more difficult when we don’t understand and we feel unable to help. Keep these eight thoughts in mind, love them like Christ, pray for His provision, and submit the rest to the LORD. As much as you love them, God’s love for them is deeper than yours on its best day. He is with you both, and He will never leave you or forsake you (Deuteronomy 31:6).
*If you are questioning the benefit you might also receive from seeing a counselor, consider the wisdom author Nicole Unice has written on the subject.
Cara Joyner spends her days chasing a toddler, nursing an infant, starting cups of coffee she rarely has time to finish and thinking about how much she needs to clean her house. Years of working in ministry and a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology have led her to graduate school, where she is working towards a Master’s in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. While waiting to finish grad school, she is working as a professional birth doula and freelance writer. Cara writes about family, health, faith and intentional living at www.carajoyner.com. She can also be found on Twitter and Facebook.