Today I shall focus on choosing a counselor. I write from my personal experiences both as a counselor and a patient. I draw upon my personal battles, blunders and victories. Thirty years ago I vowed to become a friend of the mentally ill and the brokenhearted. I have not strayed from that commitment. I write not only on behalf of patients, but also on behalf of counselors. I ask you to consider what I write; and if my words ring true, do incorporate them in your decision making process and share them with others.
I was impressed by the approach one psychiatrist adopted with his patients. He gives them unlimited options to select the therapist of their choice. This is an unusual approach. It merits consideration by more mental health professionals.
Choosing a counselor with whom we are comfortable needs to be a prerequisite in any counseling relationship. Such a person will not intimidate us, humiliate us, be condescending or impose a schedule of treatment that violates our conscience or overwhelms us. He will give us the freedom to disagree with his counsel. He will be a person of integrity. We will feel safe and accepted in his presence. His words will challenge us, affirm us and give us hope. We will be able to divulge both the most sacred and the most sordid thoughts and events without fear of being judged or condemned. He will be a good listener. He will be able to separate facts from fiction, delusions from reality, what is holy from what is unholy.
Who our counselor is and what he believes will shout louder than what he says or does. His very presence will inspire peace and confidence. We will like his voice and his mannerism. His office will feel like a comfortable pair of slippers. We will be able to relate to him both as a counselor and a friend. He will be able to identify with our pain and confusion because of his own humanity. We will be able to consider his counsel even if it is contrary to the way we have done or seen things in the past.
The counselor we choose must be able to see us as whole and well even if we, or no one else can. The word “hopeless” cannot be a part of his vocabulary. He must be able to see our God-given potential. If he is unable to do that, he must be willing to say so, and if possible, suggest other counselors. Note that I used the word “suggest.” Counselors must not go beyond “offering” alternatives for consideration. Unless it is a matter of life and death, patients must not be denied the right and freedom to make their own choices.
The right counselor for us will be able to interpret the crises in our life not as a disaster, but as an opportunity for meaningful transformation and growth. Searching for the right counselor should be like a quest for a best friend, not someone we want to cling to or recruit to believe like we do. A best friend is someone who can believe in us during a season when everything around us is dark, dreary and confusing.
There are a number of ways we may be able to become acquainted with a counselor without making an office visit. Often these professionals hold classes or have written books or articles for professional or secular magazines. Sometimes there are videos available that we can purchase, rent, or borrow. Talking to a current or former patient is one of the best sources of information.
A recommendation by a trusted friend should carry a lot of weight. Our counselor’s educational credentials are important, but it is that “gut feeling” we should rely on. More important than the degrees he has earned is his own personal relationship with God. Is his god the God of the Bible or some other god? Is His Word his textbook? Does the counselor believe that sane people can have visions, hear voices or “speak in tongues” like the apostles in the Book of Acts? In other words, is the spirit realm real or imaginary? I am personally quite sensitive on these issues. My psychiatrist evaluated my “speaking in tongues” as gibberish. He placed me on disability, a mixed blessing. My response was, “Well, if the world says I’m crazy, I’ll take some of their crazy money.” That was thirty years ago.
Some counselors have taken a strong position for or against the use of mind and mood altering drugs, shock treatment, lobotomy and hypnosis. If that violates our conscience, it is best not to seek their counsel. We have a right to ask questions about these pivotal issues. At times it is difficult to ascertain the particular leaning of a counselor. In those cases we can obtain some insight by asking what type of books they recommend. We may have to play the role of a detective to obtain some of these answers.
I would like to digress now and also be an advocate for the counselor. Making ourselves available and vulnerable to be a garbage can for all the conflict within the life of another person can be very draining, even dangerous. To be effective and survive, a counselor must, above all, have a genuine love for his patients. He must have healthy ways of dealing with the toxic waste poured all over him day after day. He must have the wisdom of a Solomon and the patience of a Job. He must be knowledgeable in several disciplines so he can determine if a problem is physical, mental, spiritual or a combination of all three.
A very needy individual can surreptitiously attach himself to a counselor as if he was their life preserver. Counselors can be pulled under by the overwhelming needs of their patients. Patients can and often do transfer their feelings of both affection and hostility to the counselor. Patients have been known to seduce, deceive and even intimidate their counselor. It can work either way. Patients can be very manipulative and exploit a compassionate counselor and vice versa. Professional ethics must never be violated. The counselor must be both personal and yet remain aloof in order to guard against unholy intimacy. A patient can be like a black widow spider spinning a web for an unsuspecting victim. This happens not only in the secular world of counseling, but also in pastoral counseling.
The need to be needed is very affirming for a counselor, but it can also become a trap. Flattery is the stock in trade of some patients. Being told that he is the only one whom they can open up to can be very flattering to the ego, especially a newcomer to the profession. I have heard words like these many times, “I would not know what to do without you. You are the only one who understands me.” Many times such words come from a sincere heart, but at other times they may be designed to entrap the counselor. For a while I facilitated a number of unhealthy relationships by giving individuals my private, toll free phone number. But we are failures as counselors whenever we make our patients dependent upon us.
Whenever someone comes to me who has a long history of seeking counsel from different individuals, a red flag goes up. These individuals will often bad-mouth every counselor they have ever visited. I have learned that my turn to be bad-mouthed may be next if I enter into a counseling relationship with them. Unless I am clearly directed to confront such perverted and offensive behavior, I avoid these individuals. Arguing with an angry person or patient is always unproductive.
One of my greatest protections as a counselor has been a healthy and loving relationship with my wife Rebekah. She is able to spot those individuals who have ulterior motives in seeking my counsel. For many years I saw myself instead of God as the “rescuer” of those in distress. That is commonly referred to as a God-complex. This forged some very unhealthy relationships. I continue to be on guard. Counselors cannot afford to become enmeshed in the lives of their patients. The divorce and suicide rate amongst counselors must always be a sobering reminder that the counseling profession produces many casualties.
I would like to suggest to mental health care givers that they write down how they stand on some of the pivotal issues presented in this letter. This will eliminate many unproductive counseling sessions. Included in such a write-up might be a brief autobiography and what prompted them to enter their profession. Any information that would allow a patient to make an informed choice should be included. If you would like to learn more about this counselor, I invite you to his website: (www.stretcherbearers.com)
Counseling is like open-heart surgery. In fact, it is open-heart surgery; and it can be risky. Even though a counselor, like a surgeon, tries to do his very best, not all operations will be successful. I say to you, patients, “Cut your counselors some slack. They are not the exclusive custodians of all the right answers” It is by the grace of God that we are sane and beautifully unique. By the grace of God we are more than a clump of unformed clay. By the grace of God we are not in zoos being analyzed by monkeys.
As a counselor, I have two favorite authors, Paul Tournier and Frances J. Roberts. Paul Tournier is a Swiss medical doctor who draws upon psychology and theology in treating his patients. A good book to start with is called, “A Place for You” published by Harper & Rowe. Frances J. Roberts is a woman of great wisdom who writes prophetically and with great insight into the human psyche. Here is a quote from her book “On the Highroad of Surrender” published by King’s Farspan, Inc.
“Never console the one who pines under My chastening rod lest you hinder the work of grace I am effecting in his heart and become an obstacle to his spiritual growth.”
Peter D. Laue