I see a psychologist every month or two. It's not a big secret but it's not something I talk much about either because - you know - people might think I'm "crazy" or "emotionally unstable" or something. In fact, the opposite is true - that is, I'm saner and more emotionally stable when I've got someone to talk with about things that are worrying me.
Not all therapists are created equal, of course, but the best ones offer a safe place to test your perceptions of yourself and others and strategize about how best to deal with life's challenges. They also provide objective perspectives you can't get from friends and family and put your issues in the broader social, cultural and behavioural context so that (a) you feel less weird about having issues and (b) you learn from others' experiences.
The first time I sought counselling was during my freshman year at university 30+ years ago, when I felt overwhelmed by the realization that the world was a truly awful place that was going to be much more difficult to change than I thought. It sounds ridiculous now but that was honestly what was distressing me at the time - the fact that I couldn't fix the whole world. Fortunately, my counselor was a very wise woman who recognized my desire to bring about positive change was sincere, and helped me develop an appropriate Plan B, which was to focus on contributing in more modest ways to advancing causes I cared about.
The next time I went looking for help was soon after I began practicing law. Like many lawyers, I was disheartened by the cutthroat realities of private practice - even in a relatively small firm. To be frank, the psychologist I saw that time didn't impress me much but she did offer some practical advice that helped me make some difficult professional choices - choices I've never regretted - and I'll always be grateful for that.
The last time I was referred to a psychologist was a few years ago when suffering from insomnia and struggling with assorted personal relationships, I found myself at risk of sinking into clinical depression. During the darkest part of that period, I found it nearly impossible to drag myself out of bed some days, there was no joy in my life, and (occasionally) I even considered suicide. Depression's a tough thing to talk about - especially when you're acutely conscious (as I was) that your life is so much better than the lives of most people on our little blue planet. How could I be depressed? How could I feel so hopeless, helpless?
Once again, I was fortunate to find the help I needed - therapists who not only commiserated (because we all need sympathy from time to time) but, more importantly, helped me sort out what I could do about the things that were troubling me. Their goal and mine wasn't just to figure out why I was confused and hurting but to get me on the road to recovery as soon as possible. Together, we re-framed my situation in more hopeful terms, developed action plans that enabled me to regain control of my life, and celebrated each step out of and away from the abyss into which I'd fallen.
Clearly, therapy has helped get me through some tough times but why do I think everyone could benefit from having a good therapist? Because, in my view, we live in a pretty screwed up culture - one that encourages people to believe things about themselves and others that are downright destructive. The beliefs serve advertisers and others who with an interest in modifying/manipulating our behaviour, but do little to help us find peace and contentment.
For example, there are far too many of us working to make money to pay for toys we never have time to use with friends we rarely see. Worse, we're told we're unambitious if we don't aspire to have a bigger house, a more expensive car, a higher paying job, the perfect look, etc. And the flipside is that we place very little value on time to just be, or on being compassionate with ourselves and others.
I can't know for sure I'll never fall into a dark place again but having more tools gives me confidence I'll be able to cope if I do. In the meantime, occasional sessions with my psychologist (incidentally, one of the coolest women I know) help me deal with routine challenges before they balloon into something more serous.
Having trouble thinking through a problem? Need to talk with someone objective? Looking for ideas for dealing with a challenge in your personal or professional life? My advice is to book an appointment with a good therapist and see what the two of you can figure out together. Oh, and go for a run. Running's good therapy for whatever ails your head and heart.
Okay, so it turns out that wasn't so hard. Look for another painfully personal post soon. :-)