We are made for more than healing, and we are made for more than freedom.”Adam Young
Therapy. It has had negative and positive connotations in history and has been the subject of satire and seriousness.
We are searching for healing and freedom. We search in religion, spirituality, material distractions, exertion, escape, and old habits. We are stubborn creatures, and there has been a stigma placed on asking for help. According to society, we were supposed to figure out our problems ourselves, stop the cycles of abuse and trauma, “suck it up,” keep it quiet, compartmentalize, and keep striving. “Fake it ‘til you make it!”
I saw my first therapist at age 11 when my parents set us up for family therapy. My sisters and I did not know why, but we went begrudgingly and sat through sessions. I later learned that the reason for therapy was because my mom was concerned about me and was suspicious that I was exhibiting signs of depression. I was a sensitive child, and that continued into adulthood. In high school and early college, I saw two other therapists. I did not feel a significant connection with either of them, and I did not yet have a great grasp of how my life was influenced by wounds from home life and early relationships. But I went, and I talked. I knew I was experiencing deep feelings I could not process, and I cried often. I was socially naïve, starting kindergarten at age four and graduating high school at age seventeen.
In previous blogs, I have expounded on my story and the burden of depression and anxiety. I’ve shared the cycles of unhealthy friendships and work positions I took on, which I poured myself into to prove my worthiness when I believed I had none. I read books, received healing prayer, read more books, threw myself into service, worked two full-time jobs concurrently, and sacrificed my personal health and emotional stability to “serve the kingdom” and empty myself for others. Lacking belief in my self-worth and that I was deserving, I instead strived to burden myself and struggle through this life, believing that was what I was meant to do. Wrong.
Therapy offers us a perspective that we cannot produce or experience on our own. The importance of counseling is that it allows us to look at the story of our past and observe how it is currently influencing how we live our lives. While we are walking through, striving, and resigning ourselves to brokenness, surrounding ourselves with perhaps good endeavors, we cannot look at our lives with objectivity. An outside person can help us unpack the reasons for our striving, resignation, and the spending of ourselves on things that distract us but are not actually worthy of our hearts.
Andrew Young, a therapist and podcast host, advises that “There are probably very good reasons why you are spending yourself on things that are not worthy of your heart. Those reasons are invariably found in your story. Continuing to spend your life in striving and burden-bearing is proof of re-enacting something in your story. If you live in the “first world,” it is worth asking yourself why you are pursuing something that does not bring your heart joy. Perhaps it is because you are bound by accusations and agreements that have roots in your story. What is the fear that compels you to remain where you are? What lies cause the feeling and fear of being ‘trapped?’”
Our first challenge as adults, and in healing, is to know our story. There cannot be wholeness or recovery without knowledge of what we love, what we hate, how evil has assaulted us, and where we have been wounded. This is a scary task to take on alone, especially when dealing with new revelations that can come up in the examination of our lives. As we learn more about our family histories, as we scrutinize broken relationships, and realize the reasons for our past unhealthy actions, we can easily despair at the darkness we have lived. We are also incredibly good at criticizing ourselves and grasping onto untruths (lies!), which have helped form us and separate us from the unwavering truth of our worth.
The good news in all of this is that the wounding and warfare we experience are most prevalent in the areas where we most reflect the glory of God. Evil is patient and awaits the right time to disturb and harm us – the times and places where we are most present to what we are meant to do. Attacks and doubts and crises emerge whenever there is a breakthrough, a milestone event, or a new opportunity for healing and wholeness. By working through pain and falsehood with a counselor to assist us in learning and discovering ourselves as we were meant to be, we become more empathetic toward ourselves and toward the others in our lives whose stories may be similar to our own. We also become better prepared to take ownership of our lives.
Before I walked through an acute and life-threatening illness, I was an expert at juggling numerous activities that were all good in their own way. The problem was that I had allowed them to take over my life, to the point of complete exhaustion. I served for years at a Christian girls’ camp, spent myself completely on friendships, was the expert at having supplies for every practical need, and was an overseas volunteer.
My knack for doing it all continued during my time as a volunteer in Haiti. I stayed awake for hours or through the night writing long depth-filled emails to a struggling friend who, though thousands of miles away, I believed I could still save from herself. I gave to celebrity-endorsed nonprofits, which were of the same mission I was living each day. I blogged several times per week, wanting everyone who read each post to feel just as passionately about my experience as I did. I was with the poorest of the poor and found nothing better than being completely exhausted for the kingdom I thought I was serving. And yet my anxiety and depression had never been so heightened.
Going from one extreme experience to another, I jumped into pediatric hospice care upon returning from Haiti. It was the one specialty I could think of that would be even more exhaustive and holistic than the work I had just completed. And it caused me to strive and ache and burden my heart more than I could physically take. I battled extreme insomnia, ruminating over small comments and situations from months past. The requirements of my new job were dangerously demanding, with calls and visits during the nights and over the weekends. All the while, I was in a new living situation with a woman who had done her own intense healing and refused to participate in my vicious cycle.
Was I doing something that I was meant to do? Most likely. Was everything I undertook applicable to my vocation and the gifting I possessed? Absolutely not.
There is nothing more serious than us taking ownership of what God has put us here to do. BUT: that does not mean we should run towards every struggle, burden, and tedium. How do we decide what needs to be cut out of our lives so that our true purpose can emerge? How many of our activities, though “good,” are burdensome and do not bring a sense of honor or joy when we complete them? Are those tasks worthy of our time, energy, or care? Are we undertaking them just to distract ourselves from the real work that needs to be done within us?
I consider the year I battled physical illness a blessing. It was an involuntary, full stop, a forced rest that required me to face my history in a much deeper way than I had previously. To make the journey a complete recovery for me, I had to have someone walk me through it in a safe, affirming way. In taking a pause and “doing nothing” for an extended period of time, there was finally space for me to look at and learn my heart and discern my real purpose. This proved much more productive and valuable than my consistent distractions of busyness, which may have been “good,” but did not meet the true needs of my heart.
Therapy and counseling can present challenges economically, particularly during this present time, and I understand that. It is worthwhile to seek out less expensive options, or professionals who offer a sliding-scale fee based on income. There are also clinics attached to universities, where students receive supervision, and services are often much less expensive. Every time I have weighed the expense of therapy against other self-decided priorities, the investment in therapy was the wiser choice. Several churches offer services as well. They can connect members with spiritual direction and/or counseling at reduced rates or as part of the offering to members of the congregation.
Engaging thoroughly with our story weekly, for the short or long-term, and peeling back the layers that hide our deepest wounding and desires, is grueling work. And yet, it is the only way to truly uncover the roots of the burdens we carry. The purpose of counseling is to examine these and receive healing, to become free from the binding ties and weight of them.