I am really fortunate (and crazy blessed) to be able to do the work that I do. Every day people contact my office inquiring of how to get an appointment. Some of the folks are out of the state and even out of the country. My licensing requirements are that I can only work with clients who are in the state of Texas. Even then, I really prefer counseling sessions that are face-to-face and not on the phone or online. Some counselors do distant counseling and that meets the needs of many people. I just find it more enriching to be in person when walking through different life experiences.
Whether you are in the Dallas/Fort Worth region or across the world, I thought it might be helpful to list out some key highlights when looking for a therapist. Many people know the waste of time it can be when working with the wrong therapist. Clients report back that they feel they spent more time trying to get the therapist to understand the situation rather than moving forward to healing whatever was the issue at hand.
If you find yourself looking for a counselor, here are some things to consider:
Rapport goes a long way
I highly recommend not trying to schedule an appointment through email. Call the potential therapist and interview them on the phone. By that I don’t mean ask a whole bunch of personal questions that they won’t be able to answer. It’s unethical for therapists to share too much about themselves and we all know that limitation. Instead, ask them about their approach to whatever issue you want to work through. Give them a brief sentence or two about what you are looking for and why. Explain that you want to meet for a session and see if it’s a good fit for you both. When therapists make the first appointment, we are not automatically agreeing to work with a new person. In the first session, we have to assess if we think we are a good fit and can help the client. You should be doing the same thing. Rapport does go a long way because when there is a good therapeutic connection, the therapist and client can trust one another to have the client’s best interest at heart. When there is friction or an undercurrent of tension in a counseling session, very little growth will be met.
Is it easy to go to counseling?
You will definitely want to find a therapist whose office is easy for you to get to, has appointment times that work with your schedule and the sessions are at a price you can afford. Some counseling clients will try to see a therapist who charges more than what is in the client’s budget so they end up only going into the office once in a while. Good solid growth seldom happens at that infrequent of an interval. Now, this doesn’t mean a client has to bring a sleeping bag and be at the office so much they feel like they live there but a rhythm of appointments is very helpful to see any progress.
Does the therapist think like you do?
I can’t tell you how often laughter fills the counseling room when I am working with clients. Laughing while at counseling? Absolutely! Sometimes life is so jacked up we have to laugh. Now that’s my style. I have personally walked through many life challenges and have found that a sense of humor helps soothe some of the intense pain. Do we set out to have a good time in counseling? No, but with the clients who think like I do and see life in a similar way, we find ourselves having a relaxed time while we meet.
When visiting a new therapist, notice if they ask questions or expect you to drive the session. Do they seem engaged in your life story or are suppressing yawns. Take note of how you feel. Do you feel good visiting with the person or does it feel like pulling teeth to keep the conversation flowing? When you leave the session, do you have any nuggets of new insight or a new good book to read?
Basically, was the time you spent with the new therapist worth your efforts and money? If not, keep looking.
In every city there are plenty of counselors to choose from so shop around until you find a good fit. Remember, you are not there to meet the needs of the therapist, but the therapist is there to walk with you on your journey.
A huge red flag is any therapist who makes you feel like you are there for them. It could be a number of ways but if something doesn’t feel right when you meet with a therapist, something probably isn’t right. At least for you and that’s enough evidence to move on.
Do you agree with the therapist’s approach?
There are as many therapeutic theories as there are therapists. Most of us have an eclectic mix of theories and interventions that we use. We have key books we like and have go-to handouts that help the majority of our clients. Make sure the approach to working on the problem fits with your own ethics and values. You will find this information out as you visit with a therapist. It may take a few sessions to really know if you are compatible and if you find you are not, don’t reschedule. You owe the therapist no loyalty other than cancelling with enough notice for them to fill the time spot. I have heard that some therapists use guilt with their clients and that is completely unethical. Clients are in charge of their treatment and are free to come and go as they see fit.
On a humorous side, many of us in the field are familiar with a clip that shows exactly what NOT to do as a therapist. I thought I would share it with you as an illustration of a horrendous therapist and for some chuckles The clip is from a Mad TV episode that featured Bob Newhart as the worst therapist on the planet. Go head and take a few minutes to enjoy! I will wait 🙂 “Stop It – Therapy”
Pretty awful right?! You’d be shocked at how some therapists come across a little similar to Bob’s character or at least that’s how it feels to clients. In some settings, a faith-based therapist may add “and pray more.” It is my personal pet peeve to hear how my fellow counselors have added spiritual guilt to clients.
Now you have a few key areas to think about when looking for a therapist in your area. If you don’t find one you click with, keep looking until you do. I assure you that there is someone out there who is a good fit and will be more than happy to journey with you toward deeper healing and joy.
Keep Dreaming Big!
We hear it said all the time, ‘where words fail, music speaks.’ Yet, we underestimate how true that statement can be. Music can help us release emotions, de-stress, and overcome pain; among other things. In my work as a therapist, I’ve discovered how powerful music really is. During sessions, I utilize music activities to help individuals grow and overcome.
One example of this is my use of song lyrics. Individuals listen to songs with the lyrics printed out and are able to mark what they feel, relate to, and so forth, but may not be able to vocalize. They are empowered to open up to how they feel, because someone has given them the words. The concrete verses allow for a dialogue to happen with the individual leading the way.
Furthermore, music can help put things into perspective and show different sides of situations. It can set a tone that allows people to reflect. In addition to having individuals use song lyrics, I also have them listen to songs that relate to them on some level, i.e., situation, emotion, or mood that they have experienced, and focus on their feelings and thoughts. This can create an energy that leads to personal reflection and insight. The songs create a bridge between what someone has experienced and the words they need in order to cope and move forward.
I believe that everyone has an innate strength and resilience inside them; sometimes they just need assistance with discovering it. That’s where music comes in. After all, it says what we can’t.
I am very honored to have been included in the article “Mental Illness and The Church: Living On A Prayer?” by Ken Lambert on The US Independent news site.
…telling people to just pray more or have more quiet time. It’s finding patterns & solutions to real life issues” – SCC tweet/facebook post 03/08/14
I honestly wondered how this Tweet and Facebook post that I did would be received. I wondered if I would get angry comments and emails telling me that prayer and quiet times solve all human problems and that there is no need for professional training when working with people in counseling. I am happy to say that the feedback has been overwhelming and all positive. I guess there are a few others out there that feel the same way I do about what Christian counseling should be and perhaps what it shouldn’t be.
I chose to send out the post via social media because it’s really at the heart of why I opened Southlake Christian Counseling and the driving force behind everything we continue to do today. Far too many people have wandered into our office looking for some solid encouragement and professional counseling, after having experienced guilt, shame and honestly not very helpful advice that was under the umbrella of “Christian counseling.” Churches are notorious for providing peer or pastoral support and calling it counseling, but it really isn’t. Now there are fabulous faith-based programs going on out there. But the minute it is called counseling or attempts to address issues that are better suited for a trained mental health professional, that’s where some trouble can and does start.
There are many great resources right here in the Dallas/Fort Worth area and across the country that are truly operating out of a grace-filled perspective and provide quality professional counseling services. I by no means believe we alone have the market cornered in this area. What I also know is that real damage has been done and continues to be done in God’s name. With this in mind, I want to share what I believe Christian counseling should be and what should be red flags that it might not be a safe emotional environment.
Let’s start with just a few things that reflect my opinions…
1) Quality professional Christian counseling should be between clients and a licensed mental health provider. The only true way to call it “counseling” is if the provider is licensed within the state they practice. There are laws governing confidentiality and standards that licensed folks must adhere to or they lose their licenses. Plan and simple. These are safe-guards for the clients. If you go speak about very personal and intimate issues with a peer “counselor” or a pastor, they are NOT legally required to keep what you said confidential. Now they might, but they are not legally bound to do so like a therapist. Kind of scary to me honestly. I have heard story after story of people sharing their hearts and burdens to only find out that information was shared with others and it spread around a ministry, church or community.
2) The biases of the therapist should be checked at the door. By this I mean that the therapist is to act as a mirror, reflecting back what the client is saying and presenting. Christian therapists can share what they believe to be helpful but ultimately it is up to the client to decide what is right for him or her. This is not at all usually the case with peer or pastoral counseling. It is often a place of clear biases and opinions about the “correct” course of action a person should take. Peers and pastors are not trained in the deeper understandings of human behaviors, psychology and the inner workings of patterns that humans take in their lives. Therefore, majority of the time (not all but majority) they are ill-equipped to help people figure out the pattern, let alone a lasting solution. Temporary fixes don’t count.
3) Christian counseling should always reflect the character traits Jesus represented when he was here; grace, hope, compassion, equality between the genders, encouragement, bearing one another’s burdens, joining together as community, not judging others but taking care of our own hang-ups before we even attempt to point out others (which we are never done dealing with our own junk so I have to believe that Jesus might have been trying to make that point but I could be wrong) and the list goes on and on.
4) Christian counselors should not give up on people. I know it happens but it’s wrong. Now there are times that we need to refer to another therapist because our skill set and training isn’t helping unlock what needs to be dealt with but we always (and are required by our licensing boards) help clients get with another therapist. We don’t discard people. I am grieved every time another new client shares that they were told not to come back somewhere else. I will say it again, licensed counselors can not just give up on people.
5) Professional Christian counselors should NOT point to the Bible and say “well, I have told you what it says, you are not following it so you’re in rebellion. I don’t see a need to meet anymore, until you get right with God.” ACK! That’s horrible to say to someone. Professional counselors are trained to walk through barriers with people and not allow our own lack of patience get in the way. I honestly have heard people say this to folks who have come to them for help. Trust me when I say it happens and often. It’s wounding and harmful to people. Professional Christian counselors work with folks while they figure out the barriers to living the type of lives they say they want to live. We don’t, or shouldn’t, just point at the Bible and go “It’s in there, follow it.” This does happen too.
There are many other things to discuss regarding Christian counseling and it’s place in the world but I just wanted to touch on a few things today. Why did I chose to write about this topic now? I heard, yet again, about a person having been told by a different Christian counselor previous to me that if only she prayed more, she wouldn’t need counseling. Ouch and yuck. How damaging to tell someone.
It is high time the face of Christian counseling changes and we are doing our little part in the world to see that it happens. I want to pause here and say that if you have experienced some of the negative things I have talked about, while trying to get help from a ministry, church or a therapist who advertised as being a Christian counselor, let me say on behalf of them that I am very sorry. I am sorry that you walked in with hope that you would be understood, helped and accepted but walked out feeling very different than those things. It truly was not about you but that other person and their personal limitations. There are good resources out there so try again and my desire would be that you find what you were originally looking for; which was probably grace and solutions to real life issues.
Often clients will tell me how they have been feeling and then ask whether I think they are depressed. That can be tricky to answer honestly. I hate labels. Yes, there are mental health diagnosing guidelines to follow but so what? So maybe I do “diagnose” depression but the diagnosis isn’t important to me. What’s really important is for the client to understand the root of the feelings and for them to get free from the dark cloud hanging overhead.
I have to say right out of the gate that if you feel depressed to the point of thinking about hurting yourself, get help right now. Don’t wait. Go to your nearest emergency room, call 911 or get an appointment with a counselor. The enemy is lying to you about the worth of your life and his only power is if we believe his lies.
A lot of people don’t think about hurting themselves but they do live with a consistent sense of unhappiness. What I call a case of the ongoing blahs. Nothing is really enjoyable, not miserable, but not joy-filled. They go through the motions of life but can’t remember feeling really passionate about something. There may be a mix of anxiety added to the blahs and you have a sad recipe for daily life. Does that sound familiar?
There are a few steps that I walk with clients through as they begin to step out of the blahs and I am happy to share them:
1) Get a physical. Go to your family doctor and get a complete blood count. Check your thyroid. Check your blood sugars. A low level of depression can be caused by a variety of treatable medical conditions. Don’t fear that you are going to open a can of worms by getting a physical. There could be a simple solution to how you are feeling and avoidance isn’t going to help you out.
2) Exercise! I am not talking about hiring a trainer to torture you 6 days a week for 2 hours at a time. Experiment with what type of exercise and for how long works for you. Most people benefit from less exercise than they think. Start small and work your way up until you feel that you’ve gone too far and then back down to your sweet spot.
3) Talk to someone. You have to seek wisdom to get to the root of the feelings. When, where and how did this pattern of thinking and feeling start? What are the spiritual causes also? What we think dictates how we feel. If we are not aware of our inner thought life, feelings will pop up that we never expected and we are surprised by.
My caution is that you need to find someone who will speak truth into your life but doesn’t feel the need to throw in a little shame or guilt on the side. Be careful! Sharing your heart makes you vulnerable and we all need to be wise about who we invite into our innermost feelings.
While on this topic, I have to say that I am not a huge fan of pastoral counseling. Sorry Pastors. But from my experience 9 out of 10 pastors are not trained or anointed to do counseling. Sure if you’ve got a theological question, they are the ones to go to for answers. However, unless your church is highly trained in counseling or inner-healing ministry, be careful when seeking counseling at a church. I have heard time and time again clients that went for pastoral counseling with one problem but came out with two. Went in with a worry about depression and came out with the depression and condemnation. Sad I know. It honestly breaks my heart and makes me furious but that’s a topic for another blog post.
Ok, so now you are cleared medically, exercising, talking about your feelings and you still feel the blahs? It might be time for a medication evaluation with a psychiatrist. Not your family doc but a highly regarded psychiatrist , with a good track record, who can point you in the right direction. Mediation is the option of last resort for me but there are times that it is necessary to help move people forward and out of the blahs for good.
Is it depression? I don’t know but lets get going in life and leave the dark cloud behind…