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Why Counseling?

Really, how important is it? Well, if thinking clearly and understanding why we feel the way we do is at all important, then counseling can be very important.

What happens during a counseling session is very much like what happens in the locker-room at half-time, when the game has gotten to a point where it’s time to take stock of the situation. And whatever the situation may be on the scoreboard— good, bad, or just terribly close— it is the foolish team that would prefer to hang out in the bleachers with the cheerleaders and the fans, rather than take some time out to talk with the coach.

Now, the game isn’t actually played in the locker-room, and the coach can’t go out on the field to play the game as a member of the team; however, the game is examined and discussed in the locker-room, and adjustments are planned to make things go better on the playing field. Counselors know that life is not lived in the consultation room, and that counseling, like coaching, really does nothing more than help the players improve the game that is being played.

Essentially, we do two different things in life: we think and we feel— and how clearly we think and how genuinely we feel are fundamental skills in playing the game of life. Just as we use our left and right hands together in different ways, in order to accomplish the things we need to do, our feelings and our thoughts need to work together without getting all tangled up with one another.

Thinking is what we do when we analyze things objectively, in the detached way that a scientist does, helping us to arrive at the most logical assessment of the situation we are in. Feelings are quite another thing; they help us to evaluate our subjective response to the situation, giving us an increasingly clear understanding of our own personal values and needs. Thoughts have more to do with what we are considering, and feelings have more to do with who we are in terms of what it is that we are considering.

Feelings aren’t just some inconvenience that we were wired with to make life that much more difficult to live; they actually have a specific purpose in our lives, by telling us who we are. They are very much like the gauges on the dashboard of a car, indicating what is taking place under the hood, helping us to understand what next to do. Just as the falling needle on the tachometer may tell us that the engine is turning slower and that we may need to gear down soon, our changing feelings indicate how we are handling various changes in our environment, and what we may need to do about it in order not to hurt ourselves.

Our anger, for example, indicates our personal sense of right and wrong, for what angers us is something that we personally believe is morally wrong. Our fear warns us when we are becoming overwhelmed by a sense of inadequacy in the face of stakes that have become dangerously high for us. And our sadness speaks of the losses that we have experienced, and of the ways we have been changed by having to let something special go.

So our feelings do not indicate objective changes in the environment itself, but rather in our subjective responses to the changes. Our feelings are not about them, they are about us. A quick sports car will behave differently than a station wagon with its cargo as they climb the same steep hill side by side, and their instrument panels will demonstrate that difference. Same hill, but different cars; same situation, but different values, needs, and identities.

Paying attention to our feelings helps us to gauge our wants and needs more clearly, so that we might take care of them more effectively. Not paying attention to what our feelings tell us usually results in some idiot light going off, in the form of an emotional reaction— and at that point it is usually too late to avoid a certain amount of damage.

And then there is telling others what we think and how we feel. The routine hygiene of a regular communication (speaking and hearing, not just talking and listening) is essential to the maintenance of a thriving relationship. In this way we can feel known and cared about, and our relationships can be effective, enjoyable, and rewarding. These companionships always provide the best teammates and fans, and help us to pursue our own personal best.

Why counseling? —because it matters and, more importantly, because you matter. It matters how clearly you think, and how well you feel, and how clearly and how well you let others in on how you think and feel. Avoiding it will not make life go any better; without paying attention things generally tend to get worse, gradually, and perhaps without being noticed. On the other hand, taking time to examine and adjust the way your life is going is, at certain times, a very important thing to do.

This article previously appeared in The Listener: volume two, issue one (Spring 1997)
and in The Observer Quarterly: volume one, issue three (Spring 1998).

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