Ask Aunt Dorcas: What About Counselors?
|Aunt Dorcas with her favorite counselor, last May, |
when he could still use his left arm.
What is your opinion of counseling? Especially for Christians.
I know from your email that you’re conservative Mennonite, and the fact that you ask the question tells me that you live among people who are suspicious of counseling and question its legitimacy, value, and justification in Scripture.
This view isn’t distributed equally among all Mennonites, just so you know. I know a number of Mennonite and even Amish counselors. I also know of many Mennonites who are deeply suspicious of the very word, and I know one couple who was in deep trouble with their church because they got marriage counseling.
Counseling and therapy are relatively new fields. Psychiatry was the first related field to appear, in the early 1900s, and it was seen as weird by many both inside and out of the church. And, granted, Freudian psychology was pretty bizarre. With the emphasis on childhood events shaping your adult problems, it was seen as giving you permission to blame all your shortcomings on your parents. If you like old Shirley Temple films, Bright Eyes is a good example of the general view of psychiatry in 1934. Little Joy is an absolute brat, unlike Shirley of course. Joy also goes regularly to be psychoanalyzed by her psychiatrist, who tells her parents not to punish her but only to encourage her.
Today, however, Freudian ideas and methods are seen as outdated, and my sister-in-law, a psychiatrist, spends her time diagnosing disorders and prescribing medication as needed. She doesn’t ask patients to lie on a chaise lounge and talk about their dreams.
The counseling field developed out of the study of mental health and the need for helping troubled people. Requirements and credentials vary by state and by the type of counseling, from licensed marriage and family therapists with master’s degrees to a local pastor who probably has a degree in pastoral ministries or Bible but spends time counseling because the need is so great.
I’ve never understood the deep-seated antipathy to counseling among certain Anabaptists, especially since we go to medical doctors as needed and plenty of other health providers besides, such as dentists, eye doctors, chiropractors, and naturopaths.
Especially chiropractors. We love our chiropractors.
When I was teaching school, I lived with a young lady named Cynthia. She was hearty and strong then, but after our lives diverged she developed a number of health issues. Maybe fifteen years later we were visiting and catching up. She mentioned that she goes to a chiropractor regularly—I’m thinking once a week.
I exclaimed about this and said I had never been to a chiropractor in my life.
Cynthia sputtered, “But! Don’t you ever HURT?”
“Not really,” I said.
Years later, Jenny, our 25-pound toddler, was sleeping in a Pack-n-Play, and I saw she had scootched off the blanket. I bent over, scooped her up, and pivoted at the waist to set her back on the blanket. I felt a tight spring snap loose in my back, which sent me to bed for about two days of what felt like second stage back labor or maybe transition. Then I went to a chiropractor. I hurt that bad. He improved things immediately.
When you hurt enough, you go for help.
Soon after my nephew died of suicide in 2006, we had the misfortune to have one of those overly confident revival meeting speakers that churches further east are so willing to supply to us in the West. One evening he boomed eloquently on the evils of counseling.
I spoke to him afterwards, cautiously. Could he explain?
He did. I don’t recall the words, only his attitude, and how sure he was of his conclusions.
The words slammed painfully into my soul that was still raw with grief and a deep wish that my nephew could have talked to a counselor and maybe gotten help. I didn’t try to argue with the preacher. I only thought, “You haven’t suffered enough. Someday, you’ll have a family member with depression. Or you will go down that dark road yourself.”
I have no idea what he’s experienced or what he thinks about such things today.
[Side note: I have a slightly wicked theory that if Mennonites saw more counselors, they’d need to see fewer chiropractors. I wonder if I could make a case that seeing a counselor would save money, long term, thus justifying the practice.
This is not to imply anything about Cynthia’s physical pain, only an overall assessment.]
Thankfully, neither my husband nor church has had any issue with me seeing a counselor, and I have done so for a period of time as needed, at several stages of my life. One helped untangle a few unhealthy patterns in our marriage, another was an enormous help in my relationship with an adult child, and recently I started meeting with someone via Zoom to sort through the enormous challenges of the last year and a half, ever since my dad died. (Though she is fully qualified, she prefers the term "coach" since she's officially retired.)
I think it’s unfair to generalize about counselors, because they come in such variety, from dreamy souls who light candles and use words like “unpack” and “heart” far too often, to blunt, practical, matter-of-fact people like my current coach who is a farm girl at heart and likes to raise cattle and hang out with sheep. Her family came from a very strict religious background which was not Anabaptist but has been helpful in understanding the lingering effects of my Amish thinking/family/belief patterns.
As with any profession, some counselors are excellent and some are completely inept. Also, someone who is a good fit for you might not be helpful for your friend or husband.
An argument that often comes up is this: “You have the Bible and the church. That’s all you need.”
To that I say: You, despite having the Bible and the church, travel to South Dakota for chiropractic treatments at Canistota and to Mexico for chelation therapy.
When we hurt, we need help. It’s great that you allow people to get help for physical pain, but cruel that you don’t let them seek relief for emotional pain.
However, I do think if the church actually fulfilled the responsibilities of brotherhood, we wouldn’t need quite as many professional counselors.
In my opinion, the number one way the church fails its people is this: we can’t handle the truth. We are aghast at people’s raw emotions. We don’t like to hear what people do to each other. We are horrified when someone talks about what happened to them.
So we shush, smother, and smooth.
We are suspicious of any real emotion, assuming it means a lack of forgiveness and faith. We crank off that spigot as fast as we can.
Also, we don’t have time. Talking and sorting through grief, losses, and struggles of every kind simply takes big chunks of time. We hate to impose on others and ask them to listen, and we resent it when someone uses up our precious time with endless recitations of their problems.
These are advantages of counselors:
1. The time and expectation boundaries are clear. You will meet for an hour on Tuesday. You can talk about whatever you choose. The counselor will listen but will also direct and provide insights. It will cost X dollars.
There’s a huge relief in having all this spelled out.
2. They accept emotion. If you have a completely unacceptable emotion, like a murderous rage at the man who molested your daughter, a good counselor won’t gasp or raise their eyebrows or quickly direct you into a forced forgiveness. Instead, they nod and keep listening.
3. They’ve seen it all. You might be the fiftieth parent they’ve seen whose child was violated. They’ve seen this rage before and know it’s a typical response. Knowing you’re typical and normal is also a relief and gives far more hope of a path forward than being treated like a freak.
4. They emphasize personal responsibility. Even though they may trace a behavior or emotional pattern back to something that was done to you, they always circle back to you. Most of us with emotional issues are very mixed up about what is our job and what isn’t. We think whenever someone isn’t happy or behaving, it’s our job to fix them. We carry heavy loads of guilt and responsibility for parents, siblings, children, and spouses. Also, we blame our own unhappiness on others. Counselors help you see that each of us is responsible for our own choices and reactions. They also help you examine the lies you picked up and believed, and they assist you in replacing them with the truth.
A lot of Christians are happy to see what you’re doing wrong and tell you to repent, but a good counselor will help you uproot the root that the wrong behavior is sprouting from, so you’re not always lopping off the blackberry vine, only to have it sprout again a foot away.
5. They know more than you do and see things you don’t. For example, I’m learning a lot about how childhood trauma and fear affect the nervous system, creating a lifelong high-alert situation. I have an extreme startle reflex. My kids have learned that if they walk into the laundry room and start talking unexpectedly when I’m bent over a basket, they just about have to scrape me off the ceiling. So, if they know I’m there, they sing loudly or knock before they come in, because they are very kind people, but even then I might shriek and jump. I’ve always thought was only a somewhat embarrassing quirk. Now I’m learning it’s a symptom of PTSD.
Recently I was stressed out over a change in our normal routine, so much so that I could barely focus or think, and way out of proportion to the situation. My coach pointed out that it was most likely a “trauma response” connected to the overactive nervous system. This connection had never occurred to me. She gave me some helpful ideas for calming down and un-freezing my mind. There are specific physical things you can do that help rewire a damaged brain. It’s very cool. Ask your counselor about it.
Friends are sympathetic and kind, but someone with more training is more helpful with some of this deep-rooted damage.
6. They guide you toward solving your own problems. Despite having gone to counselors and taken a few weekend courses, I haven’t learned this magic trick. Most of us tell people what they ought to know and do. A good counselor asks a few casual questions and suddenly you realize where you went wrong. Duh! It’s so obvious! And you figured it out all by yourself, or that’s what it feels like, which is far more powerful than having someone tell you.
7. They keep your conversations confidential.
If you really want to reduce the need for your church people to go to counselors, here are some things you can do:
1. Schedule times of listening. Offer to sit down with someone and listen for an hour or two. It’s hard to explain what a gift this is. My neighbor, Anita, has at various times told me that she wants to be available for me to “debrief” after big events—funerals, our son’s wedding, and so on. After my dad passed away, I took her up on this offer. She let me talk and made sure she understood. May her tribe increase.
2. Be ok with truth. If you listen to people, you will hear alarming things. The truth might be that a church leader violated a child, your favorite aunt was an abusive mother, a young unmarried couple is pregnant, your loving neighbors’ marriage is horrible, your friend is deeply angry, or your son got a DUI. While you need to be discerning and respect confidentiality, these are not good reasons to slam the door on the truth. The truth is your friend. Don’t be afraid of it. You might need to go to bed with the covers over your head until you get used to the revelation, but believe me, if you go on to play whack-a-mole, trying to suppress any indication that this truth is coming out, you will be frantic, exhausted, and ultimately fruitless.
3. Be ok with emotion. Most of us have learned that it isn’t safe to say how we really feel. As I mentioned earlier, we equate genuine emotion with a lack of faith. So we smile at church and go home and cry. We lie when people ask how we’re doing. We hide and pretend and ultimately need doctors and chiropractors for all those vague aches and pains. We have not learned true lament.
How you can help: let people feel what they feel. Seek to understand. Invite the grieving mother over for tea and let her talk about the ravaging pain that won’t go away. Be quiet. Nod. Say, “That sounds horrible. Here’s some more tea.” Let yourself cry with her.
4. Stop the pat answers. Just stop. If you have any Christian decency and common sense, don’t say this stuff:
“Well, it’s all for the good to them that love God.”
“He’s in a better place.”
“You shouldn’t feel that way.”
“You need to forgive.”
“Just think, Mary has it so much worse and she never complains.”
“You’re holding a grudge.”
“I know he abused you, but just look at how much good he did in the church.”
“You need to let it go and quit bringing it up.”
“You’re just bitter.”
“You’re just lazy.”
“I’m sure they meant well.”
“Pray about it.”
“You need to think positive.”
“You need to read your Bible more.”
“Can’t you try harder?”
This is what you should say instead: “That sounds hard. Have some more tea.”
Set a box of tissues at their elbow.
Yes, there’s a place for speaking hard truth to a brother or sister in the church. Exhorting, rebuking, all of that. But you don’t do that when they’ve just lost a loved one or are going through terrible struggle and loss.
If you listen well, you might find and gently expose the root that is producing the sinful blackberry vine. Our pat answers lop off the vine about a foot off the ground, so the problem grows and spreads all over the orchard.
5. Refer people to professionals. If you are listening to someone who is barely functioning, or out of touch with reality, it’s time to refer them to a doctor. If you get involved and listen well, you’ll know when you’re beyond your capacity to help.
6. Respect confidentiality. If Martha confides in you about her depression, don’t hint at her issues in a prayer request at Bible study. However. If Martha says her husband is molesting the children, tell her that you can’t keep this secret.
In conclusion, I think counseling can be a good thing for Christians or anyone. It ought to be approached with the same care that you’d use looking for a good doctor or mechanic. If we cared better for each other in general, we would deal better with both physical and psychological pain, and we would need fewer professionals to fix us.
That’s what I think.
You can send your Ask Aunt Dorcas questions to email@example.com.
You can find my books at Muddy Creek Press.