If I told you straight up how many different counselors I have seen in adulthood, you would probably make some assumptions about me. That’s how this works.
When you confess to having issues, humble enough to admit it and brave enough to do something about it, people start getting weird. Christians and non-Christians alike. They start getting weird and looking at you funny and judging you before you can even get the next sentence out. Some of you are judging me right now—changing your opinion of me, reevaluating my worth and my ability to contribute to any conversation, even as your eyes hit this sentence. It’s called stigma. And it’s especially true if any actual mental health diagnosis is involved. Assumptions get made. Some might be accurate, but others (most, I’d say) would not be. Some would be based on ignorance and pride, others on really bad theology that has hurt a lot of wounded people. And so I’m a little more careful these days about how and when I talk about the hard things I’ve gone through.
My favorite counselor, the one I stayed with the longest, taught me that: to stop sharing my truths with people who weren’t safe. So I’ve been in the process of learning that vulnerability is for particularly safe family members and for very good friends. (Except when it’s for the internet. Or a Tyndale Bible.)
Unfortunately, we usually learn the hard way who is safe: by being vulnerable with someone new and then almost immediately regretting it. (Or hitting publish on a post and then realizing we have terribly overestimated our ability to be understood and accepted as we are.)
Recently, this post by Natalie Trust got me thinking about the good counselors and bad counselors I have experienced in my own life and that horrible feeling … that knife in your gut when you figure out you have just been vulnerable with the wrong person, even if the whole point was to be vulnerable with them, you just know in your heart that the very act of letting down your wall in front of them has damaged you again somehow.
And I realized quickly that when I think of being vulnerable with the wrong people, when I think of the worst counselors I’ve experienced, I actually think of my encounters with two different women who happened to be counselors, but—and this is somewhat critical to the story—neither one was actually my counselor.
I encountered them several years apart (light years, actually, in the scheme of my life), but in almost the exact location, in the exact ministry circle. And both hurt me deeply with their recklessness. To be fair, I let both women into my secrets. I sat across from each in their respective ministry offices under the guise of getting to know one another and I shared my heart, as I was quick to do at that point in my life. Rather than responding in the way I expected—tell me your secrets and I’ll tell you mine and we can become best friends—they each responded as (deeply flawed) would-be counselors instead of as new friends.
There were huge errors in judgement—on my part for trusting them and on their parts for not recognizing how unseemly it is to insert yourself into someone’s story in the role of trusted counselor when you have not earned that position through deep and lasting friendship or accepted it based on an explicit invitation.
My husband is currently in graduate school to become a licensed counselor and we were warned about what I’ll call the “counseling virus” at orientation. It went a little something like this: “Students will try to practice their counseling skills on you, and you’ll need to remind them that you are not a patient.” Like medical students who see potential diseases all around them, psychology students are prone to see a disorder in every friend, a new-found patient in every vulnerable spirit. Sadly, I’ve come to the conclusion that this virus actually follows some into the rest of their lives, well beyond grad school, where they are unable to separate the need to fix people from the need to simply be a person. Those who have a heart for ministry, as these women did, often miss that line the most and walk through their lives confusing compassion and relationship with either some strange form of directed discipleship or therapeutic psychoanalysis—depending on their training.
What it looks like to offer someone love gets mixed up with what it looks like to offer guidance.
And there is a subtle difference. And a lot of damage can be done when the difference isn’t seen and these two women I speak of clearly could not see the difference or understand the healthy boundaries that make up the difference.
The first woman, we’ll call her Karen, did not respond to my hurts with encouragement and friendly conversation, as I’d expected. She responded with the training she’d been given as a sort of spiritual counselor, with a degree from God-only-knows where and certainly no actual license. She responded to my story of death, sickness and depression by reminding me that Jesus came to set me free.
The wheels were turning in my head at this, because I didn’t for even the slightest second feel (or feel I had ever expressed) that I was not set free by Jesus … but I was so caught off guard by her response and her quick shift from listener into would-be counselor that I couldn’t get a single thought past my lips. So I listened, dumbfounded, as she went on to say that problems like mine could be “taken care of fairly quickly.” (That’s a direct quote.) In fact, she went on and on about a particular person she knew who was “very good at” removing the said problem.
She’d even seen him do it once on stage.
I was baffled and left her office in a daze. What had just happened to me? What was she trying to say?
Later that day, a little research into the person she’d mentioned made it abundantly clear that the horrible suspicions I’d had on the long drive home were correct: This woman believed my depression and physical illnesses were due to demon oppression (or possession?) and that (if I’d let her) she could scare off the devil and cure my depression issues right up.
No, really. She was convinced. So convinced that she continued to pester my husband about this, long after the conversation.
And, truly, the thought of it makes me ill, makes me feel less than, makes me feel horribly and unfairly judged to this day, because in fact she knew so little about me. So little. Maybe 15 minutes worth, at most. And yet she was so quick to judge and so quick to apply her school of “counseling” to my life—crazy as it was—when all I was doing was trying to get to know her better by sharing my story.
Now, the second woman I’ll call Lisa. You would think that after my experience with Karen I would have wised up, but, no. Once again, I found myself sitting in an office with an older woman, a potential new friend, pouring out my heart and thinking that the person sitting across from me might do the same or—at the very least—maybe help me to feel heard by another human. I was going through a lot and she seemed like a safe person.
Make no mistake, this was not a counseling appointment. This was (I thought) new friends taking time to get to know each other. Me and Lisa. Doing some lady-bonding.
First she started in on the anti-anxiety and antidepressant medication I happened to have in my purse, because I’d just come from the pharmacy. It’s one thing to take it, it’s another to carry it around hanging out of your purse for everyone to see.
I’ll never forget those words, because they cut deeply into me and touched on every insecurity about my mental health. I felt myself clamming up. I was sitting in the other office with Karen all over again. Being wildly misunderstood, recklessly diagnosed, and harshly judged by a woman who truly just barely knew me. In truth, I began to tune Lisa out and I don’t remember much of what she said after that. Call it self-preservation or just straight up repression. I know that she said some things about gratefulness and like the other would-be counselor, she threw some verses at me along with some overly trite platitudes like “what happened to you isn’t who you are, it doesn’t define you.” And to this I remember thinking, “Lady, you don’t even know who I am, so how dare you say that these things haven’t defined me?” Sadly, it’s a cliche that I have seen used again and again since then by well-meaning people. It is supposed to comfort, I know, but for many it is an insult when what has happened to us actually has changed who we are. To try to be who we were before any given traumatic experience is an act of denial that is not necessarily healthy. We have a new normal—those of us who’ve been through something hard—so don’t deny someone this reality or deny yourself that reality. When you do, you’re just reinforcing a strange stoicism, a stagnant faith, and a lifestyle of denial that will eventually implode.
As for my response to Lisa’s cliches, I think I probably smiled a little and made an excuse to get going. To be honest, I don’t remember how I got out of her office, but I don’t think we ever had another actual conversation even though we worked for the same organization for almost a year after. She had made it clear that I was not a friend or a peer, but a patient to be counseled—and her brand of counseling I was certainly better off without.
As I reflect back on the two situations I see several commonalities, besides my poor judgment of them as potential new friends. Both women called themselves counselors but were not actually licensed as counselors (as in, recognized by the state as being able to handle serious emotional traumas). Both women were older, and though I clearly did not book appointments to receive their formal or informal counseling, I might have subconsciously hoped that as my new friend, each might take the role of loving older mentor in my life—something I had once and then lost first to the hectic pace of life and then the tragic reality of death. Was I hoping to find a new Carole in these women? Carole, a dear mentor, who could never be replaced?
Perhaps I was. And perhaps their inability to be Carole contributed to how deeply I felt their wounds.
Both Karen and Lisa also seemed to be surrounded by younger women. Did I read this as trustworthiness when it was more likely a clue that both women liked to be right and didn’t want to be challenged the way peers tend to challenge us? Both women had a dangerous false confidence in their ability to perceive what was needed by the person sitting in front of them. A false confidence that—in my case—led to the tearing of new wounds rather than the healing of old ones.
Sometimes—in the case of counselors who are actually sought out, who are booked and paid for—we won’t know they aren’t safe until we know they aren’t safe. Until we are sitting in their office with the door shut. Until they are suggesting that we have a demon or sipping their Starbucks lazily from 10 feet away while we sit on their couch and cry alone. Sometimes all the research in the world, all the initials behind a name, can’t suss out a good fit in a counselor. You can’t tell from an online bio who will be gentle. You can’t know from a photo who will be a comforting presence. Trust me … I’ve tried and I’ve been very wrong.
But I’m so glad that I didn’t give up.
I’m very aware that it’s horror stories like these that keep people from taking the risk, booking an appointment, sharing their souls, and possibly getting the healing they need.
But that’s why this is only part one. Please come back for part two where I’ll talk about the healing gained at other times, when I have taken the plunge and been vulnerable with the right people …