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article of the month
We will feature a new article here each month written by one of our group members. These articles are offered free for your information and are not meant to provide individual advice or psychotherapy.

February 2010


By Carl Shubs, Ph.D.


This is a wonderfully important question. People feel anxious, depressed, confused, or somehow unhappy at times in their life. That's normal, and we all try to deal with these things on our own.

When we're able to do so, it builds our self-esteem, because then our problem solving and coping skills are working well for us. It helps to fortify our self image and enables us to feel successful in our lives. It also helps us to feel strong, powerful, capable, in control, and independent, and it keeps us from feeling embarrassed, helpless, dependent, and ashamed. We usually prefer to feel the former and to avoid the latter.

So, if you find yourself feeling stress, having conflicts with yourself or with others, or having problems with relationships, marriage, work, or communications, should you press on all by yourself? If you're feeling anxious or depressed, should you tough it out and hope it will pass? You may be engaging in some behaviors that you're not happy about or that are making some kind of mess in your life, like drinking, using drugs, compulsive sexual behaviors, infidelities, gambling, overspending, other compulsive activities, or eating disturbances. When is it time to seek out a referral to a psychologist for psychotherapy, whether it's individual therapy, marriage counseling, or family therapy? These become even greater questions if you're alone and without the support you'd like to have in your life.

When is self help not enough? When is it time to reach out for professional help?
This really presents two separate but related questions, and they come down to the difference between need and want. It's also the difference between whether you are reactive or proactive in how you deal with life.

Sometimes people come to see me because they feel that they "need" to see a psychologist. In those situations, the person usually has found some area of their life not working the way they would like, and they may even feel like things have fallen apart. They may have had something terrible happen in their life or in that of a loved one, such as the death of a special person, an illness or injury, loss of a job, divorce, or separation, and they're having difficulty coping. They have tried everything they can think of to make things better, and it still hasn't helped. They may feel hopeless or desperate and could either be contemplating some drastic action, such as quitting a job, ending a relationship, or suicide, or they might have actually tried do to something like that. Similarly, they may be involved in some kind of behavior that they do in an addictive kind of way. Or, they may be stuck in a relationship or a pattern of behavior and they can't stop. These people are acting in more of a reactive way, and in those situations, they feel that they "need" the therapy in order to make those changes in their lives.

Alternatively, some people come to see me because they "want" to see a psychologist. They want their life to be better. Nothing drastic or terrible has happened in their life, and in many ways their lives are going well, but in some ways they may feel unfulfilled and just want their life to be better.

It's similar to some people getting help with how their body works only after an accident or injury, and then they go to a physical therapist to fix what was damaged. Some people go to a gym only when they are extremely overweight, and even then they may only do it at that time because they have found that the weight problem has had some really negative impact on their life or their doctor very strongly told them that it's a serious health issue. This is more in the realm of need.

In contrast, some people go to the gym, and/or see a nutritionist perhaps, because they want to be more healthy and fit. They may not have any physical problems, but they may want to be healthier, toned, flexible, strong, resilient, and generally more capable of using their bodies to do things that they enjoy. They want some help to make their life as fulfilling as they wish it to be, not just trying to fix something that may feel "broken" or "damaged" in their life. These people are acting in more of a proactive way.

I think these different descriptions will help you to answer your question as you consider what made you even look at this article or think about reaching out for some kind of help. As for the question about "what can one gain from speaking to a psychologist," let me answer that in a general way that has to do with how I work with people. We talk together about what brings you in for therapy and what you're looking for. With that in mind, we talk about what works, what doesn't, and why. Together we explore various options for alternatives to all of that. So, what you may gain is a clearer understanding about how it came to be that your life is as it is, some understanding of what has made it difficult for you to change it, some tools to make those changes, and the development of new and better abilities to deal with those things that had been obstacles for you previously.

The question of whether or not you need therapy is somewhat like how you go about preparing your income taxes. If you're able to accomplish your goals just as well and just as quickly on your own, that's great. If you reach a point when you're not, maybe it's time to talk with a professional.




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