By Mary J. Simon, Psy. D. and Howard Lambert, Ph.D.
John had been having a difficult time at work for more than a year. In addition, his parents were growing older and becoming demanding. He was having difficulty sleeping and seemed to lose interest in things he used to enjoy.
His wife, Sue, approached him saying, “John, I think you are depressed. I’d like you to see someone for therapy.” John exploded, “I’m not sick.’ This is just a hard time. I don’t need help. I’m not weak. I can handle it myself. Nobody in my family has ever had to see a shrink and I’m not going to be the first. There’s nothing wrong with me!”
Though seeking psychological help has become more “mainstream” in the past 20 years, many people still see going to therapy as a sign of weakness, something that only crazy people do. Even those who decide to get counseling sometimes feel reluctant to tell friends they are doing this. They are afraid that people will think of them as sick or inadequate.
Perhaps one of the reasons that it is difficult for some to ask for help with problems in living is the myth that only weak or inadequate people have problems, at least ones they can’t handle on their own. The old pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps philosophy implies that you are inferior if you can’t handle it by yourself. If you acknowledge emotional pain or confusion and ask for help, you are a wimp, a whiner. Society often tells us to just get over it and do something useful and productive instead of feeling sorry for ourselves. This seems to imply that strong people ignore pain. If you don’t pay attention to the pain, it will disappear.
During the past 30 years of helping people grow, the authors have come to believe that the deeper truth is this: If we do not acknowledge and learn to deal effectively with the normal painful problems of life, we act them out in ways that cause pain and aggravation for ourselves and the people around us. We do not consciously want this to happen, but it is common. For instance, John in the above scenario could end up performing poorly at work or he might explode angrily at his wife, children or parents, because he doesn’t know how to take care of himself in a difficult time. Without help, he could become so depressed that he loses his job – with obvious detrimental effects on everyone concerned. It is even possible that he could reach a breaking point and act violently toward, or totally abandon, those he loves.
In the experience of many therapists, the people who seek out counseling to help with difficult aspects of their lives are some of the most competent, caring, people around.
One way to think about it is to picture your life as a journey down a river. Often the river flows smoothly and can be navigated easily without the need for outside information or consultation. Periodically, however, the stream flows faster and more turbulently. You may hit dangerous rapids that could capsize the boat and seriously injure you and your loved ones.
Who is the more intelligent, competent person? The one who attempts to navigate choppy or dangerous waters with no expert knowledge or skills, or the one who contracts with an experienced guide and learns how to navigate safety through these parts of life? Who is more likely to emerge from the rapids unscathed, perhaps even stronger and more competent from having learned new sills? And who is more likely to navigate future rapids successfully, perhaps even with a sense of adventure and fun? If you have picked the person who hires the guide, you are probably willing to consider the option of psychotherapy when your life becomes turbulent. Congratulations. You have learned the wisdom of the Buddha’s words: “It’s not the pain of life that causes us suffering. It’s our resistance to dealing with it.”