When people I meet in social settings find out that I’m a psychologist, they often jokingly say something like, “Boy, I should really come to see you!” Or they might describe some aspect of their life and ask, “So doc, do you think I need a psychologist?”
These tongue-in-cheek reactions are informative.
It’s common to wonder how you’re faring overall. The “am I O.K./crazy/normal/weird/losing my mind?” question is one that many of us have grappled with at some point in our life.
But how do we know if we are emotionally O.K.? When does the expected angst of existence slip into suffering that requires help? And how do we know if we are somehow making things worse for ourselves by denying how out-of-control our life might be?
Below I briefly review three reasons that prompted some people to call me for counseling. This list isn’t exhaustive, of course, but it can be a good starting point in assessing whether you might need help from a psychologist or counselor.
What commonly brings people into psychotherapy?
“There’s got to be a better way.”
In this case, there is the realization that something is amiss and that some type of help from outside of you is needed.
Sometimes, the dissatisfactions, insecurities and distressing situations or mindsets that are a part of life have become too overwhelming to go it alone. This realization often occurs because the pain doesn’t abate. You might not be able to imagine a future devoid of emotional pain. Or your emotional struggles might be negatively impacting different areas of your life, such as work, your marriage, relationships in general, your ability to make decisions, etc.
Suffering is an inherent part of life. Some of life’s hardships are temporary, a difficult period that we must get through before things seem to get back on track. We may be forced to adjust and adapt for this to occur. Supportive friends and family can be central during this time.
Our emotional struggles can take a significant toll on us when they become a permanent fixture in our lives; when psychological or emotional pain doesn’t loosen its grip and allow us the freedom to experience the pleasures and gifts that life has to offer, professional help may be needed.
As a client once said when I asked what brought him to therapy: “There’s got to be a better way! I’m tired of feeling this sad day after day, week after week, month after month.”
“Someone suggested I give you a call.”
Sometimes it is the voice of another that sounds the alarm that help is needed. When this is a voice of love and concern (or a voice we respect), it’s hard to ignore.
For all of us, there are inherent limits to self-understanding. The shadow of our past, our inner conflicts, fears and defenses (the many automatic ways in which our minds attempt to cushion emotional pain) create blindspots that narrow our psychological vision. As a result, our self-inhibiting (and, at times, self-destructive) patterns may not be apparent to us. We simply live the life we know and exist in the grooves that have been set in our childhood.
It’s often the perspective and feedback of another that shines our reflection back to us in a way that opens us up to a different version of ourselves (one that we couldn’t see on our own).
Of course, it’s not easy to receive this kind of feedback. We may reject it outright, explaining it away as a bias of the other rather than an accurate depiction of us (or of some area of our life). At other times, we may not be ready to hear this feedback, but a seed gets planted in our mind and with time (and with a reduction of our defensiveness), the message takes hold and we open ourselves up to it.
“He always stops at two beers…”
It’s so common to compare ourselves to others that we may not even realize that we’re doing so. For some of us there is a clear downside to the comparison trap, especially when we create some idealized version of another’s life and then berate ourselves for “failing” to replicate that person’s accomplishments. In these instances, another’s life is used to make us feel bad about our own, and this is never useful.
But not all comparisons are self-defeating. Sometimes they can help motivate us to improve ourselves in some way (e.g., someone you know lost weight and has improved his/her health after joining a gym and now you are motivated to do the same). Seeing how someone else is living their life can inspire us to take stock of and work on our own.
One client sought out therapy after being impressed with how a new neighbor interacted with his wife. In the initial therapy session the client stated, “He [the neighbor] is so attentive whenever his wife talks to him. I just started to watch the way he is with her and how open and playful they are together. At first I was a little jealous of him and immediately thought that they must be newlyweds. But they aren’t. I realized I’m not like that at all with Cathy. But I want to be, so that’s why I’m here…”
Another client was struck by how his friend always stopped drinking at two beers. Despite complaints from his wife about his drinking (and he admitted he never stopped at two drinks), this client always denied that his drinking was out of control. It was this simple comparison to his friend that motivated him to speak with a psychologist to get help in looking at the question of whether he might have a drinking problem.
The reasons why someone might go to see a psychologist or counselor are not always so black and white. There’s much gray area, and that’s not unsurprising considering how complex the mind is.
Some people are in great pain; others feel stuck and unfulfilled; some are grappling with a significant decision and they want to explore the potential ramifications of their choices; others may want to work on a very specific issue; and some people may use therapy to achieve greater self-understanding and insight.
It’s important to remember that whatever your reason for seeking a psychologist or therapist, you are the one in charge. You can stop at any time. Within the therapy, you can change your goals and your focus at any point. And you should always feel the freedom to ask your therapist questions about the therapy process and what you can expect.
Rich Nicastro, Ph.D.
Psychologist, Georgetown Texas
(Photo by Nik Shuliahin on Unsplash)