Counseling is for THOSE People

By Matt W Sandford, LMHC

At the beginning I hated the idea of going to counseling. It felt like an insult that someone had suggested it to me. I was sure that what they meant was, “there’s something wrong with you, something that you can’t fix on your own and you need help.” I had never thought of such a thing for myself, because I knew I was not in that category; meaning the group of people who are screw ups or losers who can’t make their life work or can’t fix themselves.

It doesn’t mean that I did not think I had problems - oh no! Of many of those I was keenly aware (sort of). You see, I was a perfectionist. And that, unfortunately for me, doesn’t mean that you are more perfect than other people. It rather means that you are keenly aware of your imperfections and that you loathe every one of them. The reason the perfectionist loathes them is because they see their weaknesses and mistakes as representative of their defectiveness. And so they are driven in two ways – to prevent mistakes and to prevent anyone from awareness of the mistakes they do make.

So, I had no interest in counseling because to need counseling would mean that I couldn’t correct myself on my own and that would be admitting that I was not good enough to do the fixing. It’s hard to separate out how much of that was about admitting my struggles to another and how much of it was having to acknowledge my inability to myself. Either way the perfectionist is trapped.

The trap pushes the perfectionist back into more perfectionistic performance. Because the perfectionist needs to avoid mistakes and the guilt that they produce, they must perform at a ridiculously high level, although they wouldn’t see it as ridiculous. I certainly didn’t. They have layers and layers of expectations and ‘shoulds’ and when the perfectionist falls short of their expectations, as we all do, they do not turn to grace. They heap criticisms and recriminations on themselves, and either they spiral into shame-based depressions or they use shame to motivate them to perform better the next time. 

I believed that if I needed counseling that it would be admitting that I was a failure, that I was defective. The irony is that I had always believed that I truly was defective at the core of me but I was trying desperately to prove my way out of that and so to earn the badge “Good Enough” or “Acceptable”.

What that all means is that I was afraid.

Looking back I think that underneath my desires to do it myself was that I was afraid that if I went to counseling I would be exposed and I would find out that I was one of those screwed up people. And so as long as I worked on me by myself and didn’t go to counseling then I could make sure people could see me as I longed to be seen. And let’s face it, if I could fool everyone around me, then maybe that way I could fool myself into believing that I was not defective, because people were approving of me.

Some of us are quite good at fooling those around us; of performing at a high level and getting acknowledgement for our smarts, efficiency, dependability, loyalty, kindness, or whatever it is we are trying to perform at. But don’t let that lure you into thinking that you are safe; that you can outrun your inner demons, your anxieties and fears because it is just as dangerous to be good at performing. The truth is that as long as you can keep all the balls in the air, you are going to need to have to do it again tomorrow…and the next day, too. You’re stuck. You can’t perform your way out of the pressure, out of the shame, out of the gnawing fear.

I know that it’s all you know how to do. Perfectionism is a complete way to see and do life. That’s how it was for me. And that’s why counseling sometimes seems like such a foreign and demeaning approach. The irony is that counseling holds the key that you are missing. It would be hard for me to bring you into an understanding of that from the outside, but just know that there is something better than this merry-go-round you are currently on.

As a Christian, you may be wondering, where is the Gospel in all of this? Great question! Back then I had some serious difficulties with the whole concept of grace and God’s acceptance of me. I believed that God had expectations. I understood that God forgave me when I blew it, but I was sure that he was ashamed of me and expected better the next time. And that is where the “something better” will be found: in grace.

Since that time I have learned that I was really wrong. Counseling is not actually for those who are “screwed up”. There is no demarcation, no division of groups into “those needing it” and “those who don’t”. There aren’t “those who can fix themselves” and “those who can’t.” There’s just one group and we’re all in it. We move around; at times we could use help and at other times we can do whatever it is on our own. The big kicker is that whether we can do whatever it is on our own or not does not actually mean anything about our character. Having needs and having limits and being flawed doesn’t make us defective – it makes us human. And that is not a put down; for we are gloriously human – and therefore gloriously “screwed up”.

But it took time in counseling for me to embrace this reality – for myself and for others.

If you have questions about counseling, I would consider it a privilege to help you.


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