I Tried Counseling… It Made Things Worse
I’ve heard this a lot from people who have gone to a counselor, done a handful (or just a couple) sessions, and found they actually feel worse than they did when they first felt like they needed counseling. Their depression deepens, the relationship gets rockier, their attraction to that unhealthy habit becomes stronger than ever. The escalating struggle can really make it seem like counseling was a bad call.
But it’s not.
This is actually pretty standard when it comes to counseling, especially with those of us who focus on re-story work. Why is that? Why does it have to get worse before it gets better?
Here’s what you need to know about the tumultuous first leg of the counseling journey, and why you ought to consider sticking it out.
It Gets ‘Worse’ Because… We Begin to Feel
There’s always an immediate crisis that is the impetus for someone to seek out counseling. Clients usually come initially to fix a very specific problem: my spouse has a porn habit, my drinking is affecting my job, my teenager is being weird, etc.
But what we’re often not aware of is the function of our habits and hangups. Each person builds up routines and relational styles that help them deal with life--and usually that means running from some deep-seated fear, or dulling a secret pain. In the counselor’s office, the layers of these defenses begin to be peeled away, and you’re suddenly aware of the raw feelings you got so good at covering up you convinced yourself they weren’t there. You head home from your appointment and it’s like you just got punched in the gut.
Who in their right mind would go back for more?
In the first stages of counseling, you start to move into awareness of your pain, and of course that seems worse. You had reasonably dependable coping strategies in place, and you’re not a bad person for it. You developed these out of necessity, and they worked. The problem is that, while those strategies may have saved the day before, they are not in alignment with the life you now live--or at least, want to live.
But letting go of our status quo means facing the truth it protected you from, and that’s going to hurt.
It Gets ‘Worse” Because… The Truth Requires a Journey
At the beginning of The Lord of the Rings, Frodo the Hobbit has a pretty sweet life. He lives in the Shire, where everything is sunshine and singing and gardens and feasting. Then he finds out that he’s in possession of the One Ring, and suddenly he’s off on a harrowing, uncomfortable, dangerous adventure. He leaves his cozy life to be hunted, stabbed, betrayed, abandoned, and see his loved ones also suffer. And that’s just the first movie.
The One Ring is like the wound(s) each of us carries in the secret place of our heart. It comes in many forms: You’re not good enough. You’re alone. You’re unlovable. Somehow, one of these lies becomes the theme of our story, and we shape our years around it, always running away and yet somehow always coming right back to the wound.
To re-story your life means to face the untruths that have propelled you thus far, and reclaim your heart’s narrative from the devastation they have created. There’s feeling, confessing and grieving and growing to do, and none of it is easy.
Shying away from the journey doesn’t make the wound go away, and it doesn’t take away the lies’ power. In fact, quite the opposite. These wounds become the most dangerous when they go ignored and unnoticed like the One Ring tucked away in Bag End, slowly but surely drawing destruction to itself.
For the Joy Set Before You
I don’t blame anyone who feels the urge to slam the lid down on the box that gets opened up in counseling. Nobody revels in the pain and discomfort. Jesus embraced the suffering of His great work not for suffering’s sake, but for the joy that would come of it (Hebrews 12:2).
The good news is that you don’t have to do this journey entirely alone. We believe the counseling relationship and the bonds forged in re-story groups empower and protect us. They give us the ability to borrow hope, to see ourselves through new eyes, and remember the joy that is to come.
It’s not easy. It’s worth it.