My degree is in psychology, with some graduate courses in learning disabilities and training in administering, interpreting and leading workshops on the Meyer’s-Briggs Type Indicator. But I have never done any counseling, so what I have to say needs to be taken with a grain of salt.
I have had counseling at some crises times in my life. Some of it was not helpful at all, but some actually helped enough to bring about major change. To me, Psychology often seems now aimed at putting a label on people and experimenting with pills until either some pill works more than it hurts, or they get over whatever it was on their own!
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been helped by pills, but I’ve been helped as much or more by reading, working at developing inner awareness, and getting feedback from a counselor. There was a face book post about pills not curing anything, but helping us keep it together enough to work through our inner conflict. That resonates with me. Though I do recognize that in the case of some serious mental illnesses, pills are a critical part of keeping personal demons at bay. Although chemical imbalances may play a part in our problems, along the way we have usually learned responses to life that no longer work for us. Sometimes it takes changing our chemistry, our mental attitudes and our habitual behaviors.
One of the problems I, and many others, have is that our first response to the outer world is emotional. We operate on a feeling level. We are capable of using logic and reason, but that is not our first response. (And sometimes, not our second or third or……)
All too often we identify with our feelings. We are sad or happy, PERIOD.
From our viewpoint there is no end in sight. This makes any feeling seem overwhelming.
Whether it’s despair or pure joy, if you feel/think it’s going to last forever, that’s delusional thinking and it’s going to seriously handicap you in dealing with reality.
We have to learn to tell ourselves,” This is just a feeling and feelings change.” That is the nature of feelings, when we don’t get stuck there by delusional thinking. Our emotions and our reason need to hold hands, look each other in the eye, and talk!
Henri Nouwen speaks to this, “Don’t identify with your feeling. It is not the whole of you. Instead pastor it gently.”
And that takes grace.
I am paraphrasing some quotes that have proven true in my life:
Personal change and spiritual growth cannot happen without coming to peace with pain. (Michael Singer)
Emptiness and despair are not only experienced by those who have been traumatized, but also by those whose lives are full.
More than grief or fear, despair calls us to pay attention to and make meaning out of human suffering. It invites us to change our very selves by changing the way we see the world. When we persevere and don’t run away from our dark night, we can be moved to a muscular faith that has looked into the heart of darkness and emerged to affirm life. (Miriam Greenspan)
Twice over 76 years my inner life has come apart at the seams for no outwardly obvious reasons. I stayed functional, but slowed down my pace while I worked through it. Each time a counselor mostly just provided a safety valve and a non- judgemental listener, so I could hear myself as I read some relevant books, sorted out my pieces, threw some away, found new truths, new strengths, and pulled it all back together for a still imperfect, but more meaningful and personally satisfying way of being in the world. As painful and scary as these times were, they yielded wonderful fruit and I do not regret going through them. I don’t think I’m inferior because I needed that process. Everyone has challenges that they either struggle to conquer or they choose to deny and to settle for a safer, but emotionally and spiritually, poorer life. Eileen
(The Singer and Greenspan quotes were found on the Blog: Make Believe Boutique
But it is hard in different ways for each of us, because we are different from one another. Ask any mother of more than
one child. They will tell you we are all born different. Some babies are quiet and placid, but solemn. Some are quiet
and calm, but smile and laugh easily. Some are hyper-active even as infants lying on their backs in a bassinet. Some
are hyper-sensitive to sounds, startle easily, and react to change. Some are tuned in to their inner world,
reacting very little to their environment. Some are quite independent, while others need more cuddling, attention
and support. Some are excitable, with an inborn tendency to over react to both positive and negative experiences.
Many children as early as two or three have vivid imaginations. Some both empathize and identify with story book
characters, often later believing themselves stalked by the story book monsters. Others are thrilled by the vicarious
terror, but don’t identify with it.
When my father read me stories about children being lost or animals being hurt, it would upset me so much that a
happy ending didn’t make it all right.
Watch how differently children and adults react to shows like America’s Funniest Videos. Some wince or even cry, as
if everything is happening to them; others are detached and amused, whether the event is real and painful for
someone else or not.
Each personality trait has an upside and a downside, each dominant trait we have gives us both
strengths and weaknesses. I’ve worked with tools for measuring and illustrating this, such as the Meyers-Briggs Type
Indicator and the Enneagram, but for this short article it is simpler to use more life experience descriptions.
A person who is very aware of and sensitive to their own feelings may empathize with others, championing the
underdog or the vulnerable, but will tend to over-react to slights or criticism, real or imagined.
As a child I was equally excitable and responsive to happy and sad things . When I
was three, I was so excited about Christmas that when I finally was taken in to see my toys under the
tree, I threw up on them before I could even play with them.
In my anxiety filled teen years, my stomach rebelled to even mild stress and I learned to not eat all day before just
going out on dates. Unfortunately for my dates, once I was out, I calmed down and got voraciously hungry. I was
not a cheap date.
As an adult I often experience sheer joy over even small things such as the beauty of nature, children’s laughter,
my grandchildren’s curiosity about the world, but I also experience extremely dark times over my own failures or
the people I love’s pain.
Even traits we consider wonderful have a down side. People with high IQ’s tend to assume they are right and often
are not open to other’s opinions, but the reality is that no one is right all the time.
Years ago, I attended a workshop where slogan and affirmations were posted on the walls. One that simply jumped
out at me was, “I am competent and loveable.”
My immediate reaction was, “No. You can’t be both.”
In my experience the really efficient people are task oriented. They are both competent and persevering. They
focus on the goal, prioritize the details, and plow ahead, often over people who unwittingly get in their way. Many
things would not get accomplished without this type of person, but they may alienate so many people along the way
that in the long run their effectiveness will be diminished.
Personally, my greatest value has been ideas that help people in general and my focus has been on relationships.
Physical details, particularly about machines, don’t show up on my radar most of the time.
I once had a secretarial job that involved a lot of detail and working with elaborate and expensive office machines.
I was a total disaster. Luckily, I realized this and left after three months. I am sure everyone there breathed a sigh of
But later I had a much higher paying job as a director that involved recruiting volunteers and bringing in training
programs for them, creating and organizing new programs, and doing publicity for these. I was successful at this in
spite of it involving a lot of detail, because I was good at recognizing, recruiting, and supporting people with the skills
that I don’t have.
I wasted a lot of angst in my early life expecting to be equally good at everything. I taught first grade and one sweet
little girl simply would not do her math homework. When I finally confronted her over this, she looked at me with her
big brown eyes and said sadly, “Oh Miz Norman, I’m good at reading. Do I have to be good at everything?” My gut
level response was, “Of course.” Luckily, I stopped and thought about it. Finally, I said, “No, you don’t have to be
equally good at everything. But you need to at least learn survival skills in math. If you don’t know basic math, how
will you be able to shop?” She thought about that for a minute and decided I was right.
I’m pretty sure she didn’t go on to become a mathematician, but hopefully she is out there somewhere shopping and
keeping her checkbook balanced.
She actually freed me of the belief that I was stupid, if I couldn’t easily excel in everything, and to accept that I had to
work harder at some things just to survive. I now try to do the things I want to avoid first, but in spurts, followed by
shorter breaks doing things I enjoy or find easy. This is a method of motivating myself with a reward and
encouraging myself by doing something I can do easily.
I tend to envy people who live in the present moment. They seem so carefree, since they are not over-burdened by
past mistakes or wounds and don’t worry much about the future. In fact they hardly think about the future at all.
They are happy, optimistic and fun, but the downside is that they are often oblivious to possible consequences of
their choices in the moment.
I have always tended to focus on the future, imagining its wonderful possibilities. Sometimes this has helped me be an
agent for change and to plan ahead for a lot of eventualities. But I also end up living in a picture perfect world in my
head. Then when reality doesn’t measure up, I don’t persevere if I see that I can’t achieve the ideal I have
pictured. I think that a lot of my life has been lived by the motto, “If at first you don’t succeed, don’t make a
fool of yourself, try something else.” Now in my later years my life challenge is to learn to persevere even through
failures and to accept that nothing is perfect. At seventy-six I still haven’t quite gotten there , but I have made a lot
I am emotionally volatile. In the early years of our fifty-six years of marriage, my husband said I could go from
bubbling with joy to total despondency faster than a speeding bullet. And sometimes when I fell into one of my
feeling pits that make doing anything seem like struggling through quicksand, I would become almost paralyzed. But
along the way I discovered that I can continue to function even when depressed, if I cut myself some slack by
prioritizing and only doing what is completely necessary. And, if I don’t waste time and energy by beating myself up
over this trait, I pull out fairly quickly and can go longer periods without becoming a bottomless pit of wants and
People like me should be assigned a counselor at birth. At several crisis points in my life I have gotten counseling,
some good, some not so much. But good or not, because I’m all about evolution, on the grand scale and the
personal, once I recognize that I’ve bogged down, I persevere at finding what I need to work through it.
And I’ve come to see that we all evolve in different patterns of stages and in a circle. For instance at a different
time in life, I and others like me, begin to focus temporarily on being more task oriented people. And the task
oriented people will at some point do just the opposite, thus developing skills in our weaker traits.
The good news is that in our later years we find it easier to become reasonably competent in our weakest
areas. (Easi er, not easy, because in order to do this we must let go of our strength, a kind of dying to self.)
And for me that means being able to accept imperfect reality and to be willing to persevere in inching toward
becoming the unique, though imperfect, person I was created to be. And along the way are times of lovely peace,
great joy, unmeasurable love, and sneak peaks at what the journey is all about.