As a counselor who has spent quite a bit of time in my own personal therapy, I’ve always been fascinated by the ideas people have about counseling that cause them to either seek it or avoid it. A few weeks ago one of my friends told me she sees counseling as a way to help people feel more comfortable with and conform to societal expectations for how humans “should” behave. I replied that I don’t see it that way at all, and that much of my time with clients is spent exploring the ways they feel constrained by their beliefs or circumstances and how they might, if they wish, choose to free themselves from too small a box. My friend is also accurate in that there are some circumstances we cannot readily change, but we can develop skillful mastery of our thoughts and actions even within circumstances we didn’t create and wouldn’t choose. It’s here where I believe counseling can have an important role in helping clients get out of the box.
Many of the choices I have personally made, and then felt imprisoned by, have been imposed on me directly or indirectly by outside influences, as though my living space was built by someone else, based on their needs, values, and preferences instead of mine. Clients don’t often say it quite this way, and instead say they feel anxious or depressed or stuck. As we explore these feelings, we discover ways in which they are trying to conform to a set of internal rules, like bricks, that were laid and cemented by others.
Brick by choice-limiting brick
Over time, brick by brick and layer by layer, we incorporate messages and expectations from influential and important people including parents and caregivers, relatives and friends, teachers and mentors. We are educated and shaped by more ambiguous others in society in the way laws and policies are created and enforced, by media and advertising, as well as through our experiences of ourselves in our broader environment. We learn we are acceptable if: If we go along, if we play nice, for example. As young, developing children, we take these messages in because humans are social beings wired biologically to survive and find protection in belonging. Without questioning them, we take these rules for granted and assume no structure could stand without them. Consider the common directive to “Always be kind”. Always, in every possible scenario? What does it mean to be kind? What actions demonstrate kindness and who do they serve? Certainly I’m not suggesting cruelty as the alternative because that represents an either-or thinking error and there are more than two choices when thinking flexibly. When a useful guideline becomes a rigid requirement, it locks out possibilities — like living in a small box with no room to move.
If you can relate to the feeling of being locked in a box, in choices that no longer serve you, working with a counselor can help you start developing an exit strategy. Together you might identify the nature of your particular box, how it was constructed over time, who laid which bricks, and how you are maintaining it on purpose or by accident. This may not be fast work. Much as we might wish for “7 Easy Ways to Freedom!”, opting out of rules you didn’t create requires the hard work of looking closely and staying curious and open to what you find. As you proceed, you may decide you want to update your space — maybe there are only a few bricks to be replaced, or perhaps you envision a larger scale renovation. Counseling works in different ways for different people because our needs and stories are different, but if your life feels like it’s “too tight”, working with a counselor can help you find more flexibility in your thoughts and behaviors.
I want to clarify that I’m not suggesting we abandon each other and refuse to be influenced by anyone else. I’m actually not suggesting there’s a right way at all, simply that counseling is one place to tell the truth about the way things are for you, how they got that way over time, and what change might be desirable or possible. As my friend said, sometimes we choose to conform and compromise because we are a social species and we value attending to collective interests as well as individual ones. If this feels like a struggle for you, counseling can also help clarify values around self and others that sometimes feel in conflict.
Counseling may not be for everyone, and that’s okay. Just like choosing other personal or professional relationships, not every therapist is a good match for every client. If you decide to take a chance on counseling and don’t feel a “good fit” with the counselor, know that in the case of self-referred counseling, you are in the driver’s seat and are empowered to choose who you want to work with, on which areas, and that you can start or stop at any time.
About Lauren Black
I’ll never forget my high school math teacher who said, “choices have consequences; make good choices.” Easier said than done! If you’re finding yourself making choices that are moving you further from your goals, you are not alone. Therapy can help you uncover the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that might be holding you back and discover your motivations for change. My own experiences in therapy led me to change careers; I earned my Master’s Degree in Counseling and have worked with people rebuilding their lives after consequences related to substance abuse and criminal charges. All issues and identities welcomed.
Contact Lauren at 307-509-0642 or LaurenBlack@peoplehouse.org.