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Should I Go to a Counselor?

Why it may be one of the most important things you can do for yourself

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Many years ago, I had a period of major depression. I was only working one hour a day and yet convinced that I did not have a problem. I proved that “denial” is not just a river in Egypt. It was easier to fool myself because I was away at graduate school, so my “not working” was not easily noticed. In the end, seeking help for myself was one of the best, most important and kindest things I ever did for myself. And, yes, we who extend care so readily to others also have the right and duty to care for ourselves.

Self-care includes our physical well-being, our spiritual development and our mental health. It also includes caring for our relationships. A significant tool to safeguard and improve our mental health is entering into a counseling relationship. Caring for ourselves includes not only taking action when there’s a major problem, but undertaking prevention and early intervention, instead of waiting until there’s a crisis or a Stage 4 diagnosis.

After all, the brain and the heart are arguably the most important organs of our body, but they don’t always function at an optimum level, and that affects our health. As metaphors, our thoughts (brain) and emotions (heart) aren’t always healthy, and they directly affect our behavior (body). The lack of self-care isn’t just personal; its absence adversely affects the people we are sent to serve, the people we work with, and the people we care about.

Compassion is rightfully given to ourselves and others. Yet many of us live a double standard, with plenty of justification for why we can’t or don’t seek help for our mental well-being. The reasons we give often demonstrate that there’s something awry with our thinking or emotions, as an electrical short-circuit in our cognitive or affective processes, and then our behavior goes askew. This often spills over into our relationships, and our life becomes even more complicated.

Avoiding Counseling?

Here are some reasons priests say they don’t go to counseling:

• “I’m a priest. I shouldn’t need such a thing.” (This is dangerous hubris or arrogance, like the

priest who told me that “priests will never have car accidents.” Our ordination does not separate us from the human race or the effects of our personal history.)

• Denial – “I don’t have a problem.” There are corollaries:

— It will take care of itself (How long can I say that before I accept that it’s not taking care of itself?)

— Fear (What will I find if I start digging around?)

— The possibility that I might have to change — that’s too hard and I don’t have the time or energy for that right now? (If not now, when? There is no magical time in the future when it will be easy.)

Denial does not mean the problem has disappeared, only that it is operating unseen in the background, influencing our actions and decisions without our being aware.

• Stigma — “What will people think?” Anyone who cares about you will say, “Good for you!” They will be pleased you’re taking care of yourself; they’ll applaud your honesty, and you’ll be a positive model for others who need an extra nudge to get help.

• Independence — “I will do it on my own.” Is that what you say about your diabetes or your heart surgery? More hubris, perhaps, with potentially dangerous results.

• Avoiding emotions — “I will fall apart”; “I will feel worse.” Sometimes we indeed feel worse before we feel better; but, like surgery, sometimes the pain to cut and remove the diseased tissue is the best course of action. No one dies when they experience heavy emotions, they just feel uncomfortable for a while. Trying to relieve the discomfort can lead to other problems, such as abusing substances, gambling, shopping, masturbation and too much time on the web or social media.

• “I don’t have time for counseling.” Consider how much time you spend avoiding the issue and behaving in unhealthy ways and cleaning up the mess afterward. Is an hour a week really impossible or an excuse?

• “It costs too much.” Investing in your good health is an investment in your longevity. How much do you spend on food? Your gym membership? Your hobbies? Your insurance may cover the expense of counseling, or it may require a small co-pay. Your bishop may be able to provide financial support as well, because he wants healthy priests who live full lives.

• “Strangers can’t help me.” How many people come to you as a priest for help even though they don’t know you personally? Do you know all the medical specialists who have cared for you? An outsider is a benefit, not a hindrance, and as the therapeutic relationship develops, the counselor will no longer be a stranger but a trusted confidant.

Try to be honest with yourself — how many of these reasons make sense if you’re bleeding to death? Or worse, what if you’re bleeding internally and you ignore the symptoms that “something’s wrong”?

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Pope Francis Shares Counseling Experience

In an interview with the Argentinian newspaper La Nacion, which took place in the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace Feb. 16, 2019, Pope Francis spoke of a time he received counseling to deal with anxiety:

“Being provincial of the Jesuits, in the terrible days of the dictatorship, in which I had to take people in hiding to get them out of the country and thus save their lives, I had to handle situations that I did not know how to deal with,” Pope Francis said. He explained that he met with a psychiatrist once a week for six months.

“The treatment with the psychiatrist also helped me to locate myself and learn to manage my anxiety and avoid being rushed when making decisions. The decision-making process is always complex. And the advice and observations that she gave me was very helpful,” he continued. “Her teachings are still very useful to me today.”

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Looking at the Facts

• No one had a perfect childhood.

• No one had a blissful adolescence.

• No one has an unblemished priesthood.

• No one has flawless relationships.

• No one goes through this life unscathed.

So how do we react to these facts? How do we respond and adapt to what has formed us and scarred us and scares us? How do we accept our weaknesses, faults, limitations and lack of development in various facets of our lives? How do we manage our lives so that they can be reasonably healthy and satisfying, and so we don’t suffer burnout, or become bitter, mean-hearted, pathetic and addicted old men that people prefer to avoid?

Counselors can assist as we try to make adjustments and the anxiety and pushback that come when we try to change. Counselors can help us engage with the resources we already have and find others that are needed so we’re better able to handle situations healthily. Counseling is a better option than creating more difficulties and more stress for ourselves as well as the people around us.

Abraham Lincoln said that a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client; it may be the same for a priest who tries to make it through life on his own.

Counseling is a great way to step outside your circles of work, family and social life, and step into a safe space to get a different perspective. Whether it’s caring for your physical health, your spiritual life, your mental health or your relationships — it’s best not to do it by yourself. The hardest battle may not be in counseling, but deciding to go. It’s like going to the gym — it’s hard to get out the door, but later you’re glad you did.

FATHER KENNETH W. SCHMIDT is an advocate for priestly ministry and support in the Diocese of Kalamazoo.

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What to Talk About

“What could you talk about?” An alphabetical list of possibilities includes:

* addictive behaviors  * managing intense or unfamiliar feelings
* anger  * neglect of responsibilities toward oneself or others
* anxiety  * onomatopoeia (keeping the alphabet going)
* balancing workload, the demands of others, and expectations of oneself  * phobias
* belief that no one cares about you  * quixotism (OK, that’s a stretch)
* changes/transitions — new assignment, new home, new housemates, new staff, new town — new ministerial assignments are a huge source of stress  * relationships (personal, family, workplace)
* dealing with the pandemic  * self-esteem or sense of self-worth
* dealing with others who are dealing with the pandemic (and all the other issues listed here)  * self-harm
* depression  * sexuality and celibacy
* exhaustion  * stress and feeling overwhelmed
* fears that prompt your behavior  * suicidal thoughts or homicidal thoughts
* feeling out of control or powerless (in a particular situation or “all of life”)  * time management
* grief * trauma (abuse, accidents, natural disasters, neglect, the impact of significant illnesses and deaths)
* habits — making new ones and getting rid of unhealthy ones  * troubling thoughts or dreams
* improving care for oneself — compassion and forgiveness for oneself  * workplace dynamics
* judgmentalism  * wounds from childhood and adolescence
* kleptomania and shoplifting  * umbrellas, vacuums, X-rays, yaks, and zebras — giving attention to things, not on topic.
* loneliness, isolation, withdrawn  

 

This list contains many common circumstances, and counseling can help us to understand what’s happening.

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