If relationships matter to you, there’s one important principle you need to bear in mind: it takes two to tango.
Think about it. A relationship of any kind, and especially a romantic relationship, can only be as strong as its component parts. Healthy, thriving relationships are made up of two healthy, thriving individuals. So if you’re interested in forming a lifelong bond with a potential mate, you need to start by giving some careful thought to appropriate self-care.
For some, this might mean seeking professional counsel. I realize that this idea may come across as a “turn-off” to some of you. But hear me out.
Lots of people assume that if you have to see a therapist, it means that you’re weak, incompetent, and unable to cope with life and relationships — in short, totally “messed up.” They may even think that counseling is a last resort for “losers.” If this is your perspective, I want to challenge you to think again.
In actuality, counseling is just a scheduled opportunity to look inward — with trained professional guidance — and find out what’s really going on inside your heart and mind. Everybody needs to conduct self-checks of this nature from time to time. Some need more help than others, but it’s not easy for any of us, especially in this day and age. The pace of modern life doesn’t lend itself to quiet introspection. Stress and emotions have a blinding effect. If you want to cultivate real self-awareness, then, you have to be intentional about it. Counseling can be a vital part of that process.
I’ve been a professional counselor for a long time, and I can tell you from firsthand experience that few if any of my clients have ever regretted their decision to seek out the assistance of a licensed therapist. Some folks start out with an underlying fear that their friends will think they’re “crazy” or “weird” if they admit that they’re getting psychological help. But in most cases that fear fades away and turns to excitement as they begin to see real changes in their outlook on life. Eventually the excitement leads to a sense of freedom and strength as they slough off the unnecessary baggage of the past and discover a deepening capacity for relating to God and connecting with other people. The end result is peace, contentment, and new clarity of vision.
When to Get Help
How do you know if you need a counselor? What are the signs that it’s time to become intentional about finding someone who can come alongside you and help clear away the fog that obscures your ability to form lasting, meaningful bonds with other people? I’d suggest that there are five things to look for:
1. Mood swings.
The first sign to watch out for is a wholesale shift in your overall mood and perspective. If you find yourself feeling angry or sad all the time, and if this isn’t consistent with your usual temperament or normal everyday outlook on life, it’s time to ask yourself some serious questions about the reasons for this change. Mood shifts of this nature can signal all kinds of problems. Among other things, they may be a reaction to overwhelming stress or anxiety.
Once I had a client — a young man in his mid-20s — who was thinking about becoming involved in a serious dating relationship with a girl. Normally he was a friendly, outgoing, happy-go-lucky guy, but in the recent past he had been falling into spells of extreme moodiness. He tried to self-medicate with drugs and pornography, but that only made the problem worse. His parents set up a counseling appointment for him, but he really didn’t want to keep it. The first time he walked into my office I could see distrust and annoyance written all over his face. I assured him that I was as anxious as he was to keep the arrangement as temporary as possible — that I was eager to see him reach the point where he’d be in a position to “fire” me. I’m not sure that he believed me.
Things were tough in the beginning, but his attitude changed dramatically when his father died of cancer. After that, he started seeking counseling. The result? He gradually became a much stronger, more stable person — a person capable of monitoring his own feelings and applying some effective self-counsel. Today he’s involved in a healthy relationship with a young woman and growing steadily in his faith in God. I think he’s a great example of what can be accomplished through a short-term course of focused remedial counseling.
Is there something you absolutely can’t live without — an obsession that consumes all of your attention and energy and exerts unwanted control over your life? If so, it’s possible that you’ve fallen prey to addiction. Addiction is extremely common in our society. What’s more, people can become addicted to all kinds of substances, behaviors, and habits — everything from food to sex and drugs, and from alcohol to pornography and gambling.
Addictions are counterfeit methods of coping with stress, pain, loneliness, or anxiety. Some forms — sexual addiction in particular — are rooted in the fundamental human craving for relationships. Porn addiction is powerful primarily because it offers a phony substitute for human intimacy and attachment. Unfortunately, the more you try to fill the emptiness with pornography and depersonalized sex, the heavier becomes the burden of shame and self-loathing. By way of contrast, the further you move in the direction of meeting your basic need for intimacy in healthy, legitimate ways, the deeper grows your understanding of real love and genuine interpersonal relationship. A knowledgeable counselor can help you start that process.
Many young men — and some young women — try to deal with stress and pressure by drowning them in substances or habit-forming activities that mask the pain and make everything “feel better.” That’s a huge mistake. If you go far enough down that trail, you’ll end up slipping into a vicious cycle and falling into a bottomless pit. If you find yourself trapped in such a pit — if your addiction has become a form of slavery and you can’t get free no matter what you do — it’s time to stop fooling yourself and start looking for a qualified therapist.
Just remember that counseling doesn’t work the same way a drug works. It isn’t about “feeling better” — at least not in its initial stages. On the contrary, it entails being honest enough to admit your problems and face the truth about yourself so that you can get the help and healing you need. That can hurt at first. Hebrews 12:11 talks about this when it says, “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”
3. Loss of competence.
If your performance on the job or in other activities where you normally excel has slipped significantly as of late, you need to sit up and take notice. This is yet another important red flag.
When faced with this sense of “slippage” or declining competence, most people try to fix it themselves by sheer grit and determination. When this fails, discouragement, disillusion, and depression often set in. Expectations drop. Shoddier work becomes the “new normal.” A person in this situation often feels as if he or she is being drowned by life — like a scuba diver who has lost his orientation and no longer knows which way is up. If you fall into this state of mind without a mentor, a counselor, or a solid friend who can help you regain your bearings, you can eventually become completely isolated. This is turn will have a devastating effect on your ability to connect with other people.
God designed us to work. The ability to enjoy labor is a crucial component of His plan for our lives. If you’ve lost that ability — if you can’t concentrate, can’t avoid making serious mistakes, or can’t stop snapping at your co-workers and wishing they’d leave you alone — it’s time to give counseling some serious thought.
4. Loved ones are concerned.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by stress, you probably aren’t in the best position to discern exactly what’s going on in your life. That’s where other people come into the picture, especially those who know and love you best. If friends or family members come to you expressing concern about some aspect of your behavior, you should probably ask yourself some probing questions.
Are some of your most significant relationships becoming strained? Have you recently developed a tendency to avoid people you used to enjoy? Is it hard to make decisions on your own? Do you feel helpless and expect others — your parents, for instance — to bail you out when things get tough? Have the “significant others” in your life mentioned any of this to you in a worried or annoyed tone of voice? If so, don’t get defensive. Instead, pay attention to what they’re telling you. Remember that a blunt, honest friend can be a real blessing. Your loved ones probably aren’t saying these things to be critical. Odds are they genuinely care about you and want to help. In that case, you need to face up to the fact some changes are in order.
An objective counselor can help you work through the problems your friends and family have noticed. He or she can also show you what it means to feel, act, and behave as an adult by taking responsibility for your own life. Nothing else matters quite so much at this stage in your journey.
5. Loss of enjoyment.
Finally, take an honest look at yourself and evaluate your feelings about life in general. Do you still get pleasure and fulfillment out of the things you’ve always enjoyed doing? Or do you have a sense that the joy has faded and everything has become gray, bland, boring, dull, and uninteresting?
If you’ve become apathetic and find it difficult or impossible to drum up any enthusiasm for activities, hobbies, and interests that used to excite you, don’t make light of the situation. This is an extremely common and easily detectible sign that something is seriously wrong. A good counselor can help you sort out your emotions.
Fatigue and loss of interest in favorite activities are also widely recognized indications of the onset of clinical depression. Clinical or major depression is more than a temporary emotional slump. It involves a persistent — lasting two weeks or longer — and usually disruptive disturbance of mood and often affects other bodily functions as well. Here’s a list of some of the most prominent characteristics of clinical depression:
- Persistent sadness and/or irritability, including emotional reactions that seem out of proportion to the circumstances, episodes of crying, withdrawal, and outbursts of anger.
- Painful thoughts that manifest themselves in a negative self-concept, persistent anxiety and a sense of hopelessness.
- Physical symptoms such as insomnia, changes in appetite and headaches.
If you suspect that you may be dealing with a case of clinical depression, take action immediately. See a counselor, get a physician’s evaluation of your condition, and be willing to consider appropriate medication. This is a very serious problem and should be treated as such.
Help Moving Forward
When the circumstances of life kick you, it’s easy to become disoriented. Counseling is simply a way of pressing the “reset button” and gaining a new perspective after you’ve been knocked down. It’s a chance to invite a wise mentor to walk with you through the dark places until you can find your way out into the light.
Not only is counseling good for the soul, this process is especially important for anyone who wants to become involved romantically with another person. If you intend to build a romantic relationship with someone, it’s crucial that you enter into it with nothing to hide. Take an honest inventory of your life and think about what you have to accomplish to become healthy and whole. A trained counselor can get you moving in the right direction.
Copyright Focus on the Family 2016. All rights reserved.