Perhaps you’re considering pursuing counseling, but you’re not quite sure if it’s worth it. You’re not sure if it’s worth your time, your energy, your money, or your vulnerability. But, you’re open or curious enough to investigate it. Every counselor and client is different, so experiences in counseling vary, but here are five ways that I believe God can use individual counseling to change your life:
5 Ways Individual Counseling Can Change Your Life
1. By giving you an opportunity to accept your inadequacy.
To be “inadequate” means to fall short in some way – to not have enough of what is needed. By this definition, we are all inadequate – or rather, incapable of fulfilling all of our needs on our own. We are imperfect and flawed by nature and thus, have limitations. And yet, we exhaust ourselves trying to mask our inadequacy, striving for self-sufficiency as if it were a badge of honor. “I didn’t have any help and I made it – on my own. I am self-sufficient. I don’t need anyone or anything other than myself.”There is a sense of self-efficacy and healthy pride that comes with being able to care for oneself. As humans, we have the ability to think for ourselves, to will and make decisions, to have our own preferences and values. We are independent, but at the same time, we are also innately dependent on others. We were designed to be individuals, yet in relationship.
As a Christian, I believe that you were made in God’s image (Genesis 1:27), in His likeness, meaning you take after Him in His characteristics. God is relational in His very nature, being that He is three persons, God the Father, God the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And you were made to be in relationship as well, both with God and other humans (Romans 5, John 15:5, Genesis 2:18).
So, if you were designed to be both independent, but also interdependent with others, then you were never meant to be completely self-sufficient, nor can you be. It makes sense then, that you need help sometimes, that you need other people to help bear your burdens and to share your joys. It’s okay to be inadequate, to be in need, because it just means that you’re human.
Through the very act of seeking counseling, you begin the process of acknowledging your inadequacy, your limitations, and your need for others. In counseling, you get to experience freedom from the need to be perfect, to “have it all together.” You get to rest in being received as you are and you get to watch God work through your vulnerability, through your acceptance of your inadequacy.
2. By helping you to identify your needs.
As you accept the reality that you are inadequate, that you are in need, your counselor can help you identify what you need. In many cases, people have spent so much time either dismissing, ignoring, or flat out denying their needs, that it takes time to learn to pay attention to them again. And fortunately, God has actually designed you with clues in the form of bodily sensations and emotions to indicate what you need.You are not just a mind, or a body, or a spirit, but rather a complex amalgamation of all of these parts, created with multiple facets to your being. Paying close attention to your bodily sensations can actually help you identify the emotions you’re experiencing at a given time. Researchers suggest that there may be universally experienced bodily sensations of particular emotions (Nummenmaa, et al., 2014).
For example, the body typically feels less activated or less energized when one experiences sadness. And sadness is usually experienced in the face of loss. Sadness tells you that something or someone you love is absent and it reveals a need to move toward others, a need for connection.
On the other hand, anger is usually aroused when you’re threatened or violated. The body usually feels more activate or energized when experiencing anger. Anger tells you that you need to move away from whatever is threatening; you need distance, you need safety.
Happiness is usually experienced when you are content, when you are delighting in something or someone. The body usually feels activated and energized all over when you’re feeling happy. Happiness tells you to stay and enjoy.
3. By helping you to respond to your needs in healthy ways.
Once you’ve identified your needs, it’s important to learn how to respond to them in healthy ways. Counseling provides a safe relationship in which you can embrace your inadequacy, identify your specific needs, and explore ways to honor them. Sometimes, our needs relate to our physical bodies (i.e., rest, activity, food) and sometimes, they relate to our relationships.
Let’s say you’ve been experiencing significant challenges lately and you’re feeling discouraged and lonely. You identify that you need connection and genuine intimacy. You realize that you need to move toward others in order to have the connection you desire. But, you’re fearful of being rejected (because you have been in the past), so instead of honoring your need for connection, you move away from potential relationships in an attempt to protect yourself. You essentially dismiss your need. While moving away leaves you feeling safe, it doesn’t fulfill your need for connection and you’re left again, isolated, feeling lonely, and perhaps even helpless and hopeless.
It’s painful to experience loneliness, and try as you might, you cannot rid yourself of your natural need for relational connection. So, you find ways to achieve it in seemingly “safer,” but more superficial, less fulfilling ways. Perhaps, you turn to pornography or you indulge in noncommittal relationships because they provide a semblance of connection without the danger of potential rejection. And the more you engage in these superficial attempts for connection, the farther you get from what you truly need.
Counseling can help you build the courage needed to pursue healthy relationships. Even as you share vulnerably with your counselor, you exercise your ability to tolerate potential rejection for the possibility of genuine connection. Over time, you feel ready to take risks to be vulnerable with others like you’ve done with your counselor.
4. By helping you learn how to cope with disappointment.
Inevitably, there will be disappointments as you honor your needs in healthy ways. While you might do your best to care for your needs well, we do not live in a perfect world. And as normal as it is for you to be inadequate, to have needs and limitations, it is also just as normal to experience disappointment or to be let down by others.
Let’s say you build the courage to respond to your need for relationship by pursuing healthy connections. Instead of indulging in the use of pornography, you take the risk to pursue intimacy with your spouse. You request to spend more time together this weekend, but your wife says that she doesn’t have time to spend. You feel disappointed, maybe discouraged or frustrated by your wife’s response, and you start to shutdown, to withdraw again. Counseling can help you to cope when your attempts to get your needs met don’t play out as you had hoped.Your counselor can help you to develop adaptive coping skills to manage the pang of disappointment and care for that initial need for connection that wasn’t met. Adaptive coping skills (i.e., thoughts and behaviors that calm and soothe you) help to lessen the strength of negative feelings.
When you experience disappointment, you might be flooded with a host of emotions (e.g., sadness, hurt, anger, shame). When you’re feeling emotionally overloaded, it’s more difficult to think clearly and creatively. But, you need to do that if you’re going to figure out how to advocate for your needs again. Just because you get disappointed doesn’t mean you have to give up on your need for connection.
Your wife was busy and she couldn’t meet your request for time to connect this weekend. Once the pang of disappointment subsides, you decide to ask if you can schedule some time together next weekend. And for this weekend, you decide to reach out to men from your Bible study. You’ve navigated your needs for connection in healthy ways. Okay, that was simple enough. But, what about those deeper needs? Needs to be fully known and unconditionally loved. What happens when those deeper needs are missed or misunderstood? That disappointment feels greater. What then?
You know that you’re human and innately inadequate, imperfect, in need of something or someone other than yourself. Your loved ones are also human, which means that they also have limitations. Your deeper desires to be fully known and unconditionally loved are normal needs, but they are needs that can’t be fulfilled by humans alone.
To be fully known means that someone would have to know you completely. And to be unconditionally loved means that someone would have to be completely unbiased, lack prejudice or unfair judgment, and always be able to forgive. I would argue that no human is capable of fulfilling these deep needs.
As a Christian, I believe that Jesus Christ is all knowing and consistently and unconditionally loving. Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30, NIV). These loving invitations to “come to me, learn from me,” were given by Jesus, God’s Son, the One who came not to condemn, but to save the world (John 3:17).
I believe that you have been built with deep needs that neither you nor any other human can fulfill. Perhaps your neediness, your inadequacy is an invitation to search for Someone greater than yourself?
The Apostle Paul, follower of Jesus, was well acquainted with his neediness. In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul says that a “thorn in the flesh” was given to him, “a messenger of Satan to torment” him. Paul asked God three times to take away this “thorn,” this source of pain. “But God said to him, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’” (2 Corinthians 12:9, NIV). Paul goes on to say, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10, NIV).
Why did Paul speak so favorably of his needs, of his inadequacy? His tone is actually quite hopeful. Perhaps it is because He knew that Someone greater than himself was partnering with him. Being confronted with hardships like Paul or with our unmet needs can feel like painful “thorns.” I do not believe that the answer to our neediness is to “buck up” and pretend as though our “thorns” do not hurt or deny that they exist. Rather, I believe God welcomes us to be vulnerable with Him and with others, to ask for what we need, and to ultimately invite God to fill our weakness with His power.
5. By helping you to embrace the process of growth.
Rarely do we enjoy the process of getting somewhere. Cliché as it may seem, we’re oftentimes more concerned about the destination than the journey. Have you ever taken a family road trip?
Initially, the kids are excited. Their car seats are filled to the brim with toys, snacks, an iPad, and their smiles are stretched clear across their faces. They’re going to Disneyland! Yeah, that’s right – they’re going to Disneyland – which is 18-21 hours away. The initial luster of this fun-filled road trip starts to subside as gratification becomes delayed…more…and more. The kids start to get bored. “Are we there yet? How much farther? ARE WE THERE YET?!”
Unfortunately, you’ve only reached Olympia. But, don’t worry, the boredom doesn’t last – it’s swiftly interrupted by some carsickness. You stop at a rest stop to take a breather. You clean up the kid who vomited and give him a hug. You reassure him, “It’s okay, buddy, we’ll move you to the middle seat. Maybe the back wasn’t good for you.”
Back into the car you go and the kids nap for a little while. When they wake up they’re hungry, so you take another break to eat. You have a picnic at the next rest stop. You enjoy the rest and time to stretch out the restlessness. You run around with the kids near the picnic area. And when everyone is ready, you get back in the car.
The trip continues and there are fights between the kids, whining, a little more vomiting. But, there’s also time spent playing “Simon Says” and “Eye Spy.” You teach the kids to observe what’s going on around them – to notice the cars, the trees, the cows, the blue sky. You talk, you engage. And before you know it, you’re at Disneyland.
You finish your trip to Disneyland and you start making your way back home. You ask the kids what their favorite part of the trip was. As expected, they talk about the rides at Disneyland, the Disney characters they met. But, they also talk about that rest stop with the picnic area and the games of “Eye Spy.” They giggle when they remember the bouts of carsickness.
Did they understand your question? What was your favorite part of the trip? You start to realize that Disneyland wasn’t the only thing that was meaningful to your children – they just liked spending time together. And even the vomiting (which made you gag) was tolerable because you were there to hug them through it.
I know; the analogy of a road trip doesn’t quite capture the complexity or the magnitude of the challenges of life. But I think the most mundane scenarios often yield the most profound truths.
The “trip” or journey of growth may feel long and arduous, but when it’s travelled in community, the trip becomes less about where you’re going and more about who and what you encounter along the way.
As you allow a counselor to journey with you, as you learn to accept your inadequacy and honor your needs, you learn that the process of growth is bearable and even meaningful. You realize that not only your counselor, but also others can and want to be with you as you grow. You start to invite your loved ones to see your vulnerability.
As you surrender your unmet needs to God and invite Him to be with you in your need, the pain of your inadequacy subsides. You begin to experience this ironic freedom and strength that comes from accepting your weakness and inviting others into your vulnerability. And before you know it, your life has already started to change.
Find Christian Counseling
If you’re ready to take the risk to be vulnerable, to invite a Christian counselor to partner with you in your journey of growth, please take a look at our counselor profiles. Reach out to a counselor who you think might be a good fit for you. Ask them about how they practice, tell them what you’re looking for in counseling. They’d be happy to talk with you. Blessings on your journey of growth.
Lauri Nummenmaa, L., et al. (2014). Bodily maps of emotions. PNAS 2014 111 (2) 646-651; doi:10.1073/pnas.1321664111.
“Middle of Nowhere,” courtesy of John Mark Arnold, unsplash.com, Public Domain License; “Sierra Aitana Cherry Blossom,” courtesy of Les Haines, Flickr Creative Commons; “Blossom,” courtesy of Michael Jollie, Flickr Creative Commons; “Italy,” courtesy of Karsten Wurth, unsplash.com, Public Domain License