The first time I stepped into my therapist’s office, I was nervous. No, let’s be honest. I was downright scared. My heart beat faster, I played nervously with my hair and I couldn’t clear the lump in my throat.
What am I getting myself into? I wondered. What am I supposed to say? Will he think I’m nuts?
Professional counseling has gotten a bad rap. Many of us have the idea that it’s only for those whose lives are unraveling — a last resort if I can’t get my act together. Yet struggle and heartache are an inescapable part of this life. Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble.” (John 16:33, NIV) How true that is.
If you’re like me, when bad things happen, you try to shake them off with a smile, a prayer and a vow to try harder, be better. This mindset of self-help focuses on change from the outside in: new planners, longer to-do lists, earlier alarms. But such striving can leave us with a nagging sense that we’re still not enough.
Transformation Doesn’t Happen Solo
Setting goals and developing new habits can be helpful. Psychologists call this “first-order change.” But Jesus didn’t come to reform our behavior; He came to transform us through salvation. This change begins on the inside, at the deeper level of our thoughts and motives, our emotions and desires.
The word transformation comes from the Greek root metamorphoó — “to change after being with” — an inherently relational process. It’s the word Matthew uses to describe Jesus’ transfiguration, and how Paul envisions the journey of sanctification:
You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4:22-24, NIV)
This type of “putting off” and “putting on” is more than an outfit switch after a morning coffee fumble. Here, Scripture is describing the dynamic, ongoing journey of our core sense of self shifting, expanding and growing into God’s created design — which can be described as “second-order change.”
Going to counseling still carries a stigma in many circles. In reality, however, seeking out psychological and spiritual support provides an unparalleled opportunity to practically work out our salvation amidst the messy realities of our lives. From anxiety to addiction, insecurity to people-pleasing, depression to the wounds of abuse, we all need transformation.
Research suggests that we change, heal, and grow in the context of safe relationships. In fact, these interactions actually rewire our brains. Like the crowds that followed Jesus, we may wish for a miracle — or an instant fix — but more often than not, the journey toward wholeness requires time and effort.
Along the way, we need trustworthy guides. Proverbs 20:5 says, “The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out.” We all have blind spots. Simply put, we don’t know what we don’t know.
My Tipping Point
Looking back on that first meeting with my therapist, I’m thankful I didn’t bolt in fear. Somehow I mustered up the courage to bring into the light the turmoil I’d spent so much energy trying to manage on my own.
At 28, life was different from what I’d ever imagined. I was reeling from the shock of my marriage unexpectedly ending and also adjusting to a recent cross-country move. I couldn’t shake the fog of loneliness and grief, and I threw myself into my work to cope.
As my story tumbled out, I feared criticism or, worse, awkward silence. I ached for a quick fix to make the pain go away. But what I got was a safe space to process, and someone who entered into my turmoil, tangibly embodying Jesus, who “took up our pain and bore our suffering.” (Isaiah 53:4, NIV)
The panic didn’t dissipate all at once, but over time, I began to see how some of the most agonizing moments of my life were leading to the richest fruit. I witnessed how God was meeting me in my struggles — not with platitudes, advice, or a miracle cure, but with His loving presence. Week after week, the steady, caring presence of my therapist allowed me to experience this.
Much of my “head knowledge” about life, God, and faith has become powerfully embodied as I’ve processed life in this way. Here are a few things I’ve noticed shifting and changing as a result:
1. I’m creating space in my life to be still, reflect and listen.
Going to therapy forced me to slow down, set aside my phone, stop doing and just be. As Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke puts it, I’m trying to “be patient toward all that is unsolved in [my] heart and try to love the questions themselves.”1)Rilke, Rainer Maria, Letters to a Young Poet (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2002), p. 21.
Rushing is rarely the context for epiphanies — and I can easily miss the still, small voice of God.
Counseling allows a reflective space to integrate my past and present, as well as begin to envision my future. I notice I’m more intentional about the life I want to build, rather than just trying to outwit painful experiences from the past. I’m also increasingly aware of the redemptive thread of God at work throughout my entire story, even the parts I’d rather forget.
2. I’m curious about my inner world, rather than scared of it.
As I’ve spent time in therapy, I’m more comfortable owning when I’m angry, sad, lonely, anxious, afraid and ecstatic — and honoring each of these emotions, without being controlled by them. I’m more of a detective and less of a judge. We often dismiss difficult feelings as our “old self,” but emotions can serve as powerful clues to what’s going on inside, where we’ve been hurt, and what we need.
Counseling has helped me affirm and mourn losses, as well as laugh at myself, be playful and take things in stride. I’m learning to hold, rather than be crushed by, life’s uncertainties, and cultivate true gratitude, not just naïve optimism. As my therapist puts it, I’m more often “on the verge of tears, acknowledging the pain and joy in life, and all the space in between.”
3. I recognize that depending on others can be a good and beautiful thing.
In a world marked by self-reliance, meeting with a therapist provides the powerful experience of being genuinely cared for and supported. Author and speaker Brené Brown encourages us to share our stories with those who have earned the right to hear them. At our core, we all long to be known and loved, and yet, getting close to others can bring up a lot of complicated reactions.
If we’ve been hurt in past relationships, needing other people can be incredibly scary. After all, if we let our guard down, something bad might happen again, right? Counseling offers a safe space to sort through these relationship dynamics, reconsider the expectations we have for others, stand up for ourselves and develop the capacity to trust wisely.
4. I’ve befriended my imperfections, rather than pretending I have life all figured out.
Going to therapy has allowed me to speak things that I was too ashamed to even think, uncovering parts of myself that I had long walled off and ignored. I now recognize that my flaws and idiosyncrasies don’t make me crazy, they make me human. And they can serve as powerful catalysts to experience God’s grace and mercy.
I love artist and author Kelly Rae Roberts’ encouragement to “embrace the imperfections, the chaos, the holy mess of your beautiful life.” Real maturity is found in knowing ourselves, owning our weaknesses and daily leaning into our truest identity as the beloved of God. Therapy has helped me see the ways I fall short each day, and discover that this is a holy — not horrible — mess.
5. I care less about pleasing others, and I can say “no”… sometimes.
I can easily let other people run my life out of fear of rejection or the need for their approval. Through the work I’ve done in therapy, I’m better able to set boundaries, rather than letting others’ emotional chaos take over my world. The irony is that when we honor our time and limitations, we are more free to invest in others authentically, rather than out of guilt or obligation.
Some have dismissed counseling as navel-gazing, but my experience has been quite the opposite. I am increasingly able to love and care for the people in my life. I am more authentically present, rather than trying to rescue or fix them. This journey of “being sanctified” is one we get to walk out together, but not something we can do for someone else.
Working Out the Gospel in Relationship
Spiritual formation is a life-long venture that the Apostle Paul envisions like this: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18) For me, therapy has become a sacred space to work out the gospel in the caverns of my mind, my soul and my personality.
God can bring growth through many avenues, but could it be that He wants to meet you in the sacred space of therapy? Certainly, it’s critical to work with a professional you connect with and trust. At times, it can be excruciating to pay attention to what you’d much rather box up and ignore.
You may wonder if change and healing are even possible, asking, as I did, What am I getting myself into? Here’s what I’ve found. I have stepped into a deeper understanding of myself and a tangible embodiment of God’s steady, unwavering love. And it’s changing me — not from the outside in, but from the inside out.
Copyright 2017 Laura Captari. All rights reserved.
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|1.||↑||Rilke, Rainer Maria, Letters to a Young Poet (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2002), p. 21.|