You might have noticed that our children are more comfortable with cultural diversity than some of us from older generations. This plays out sometimes in interesting ways during discussions with Grandma and Grandpa, right? By and large, the younger generation is un-phased by celebrities or friends who are gay, lesbian, bi, trans, or non-binary. There is also a similar level of openness toward people of color, people with disabilities, and in general, people who just don’t look like us. I’ve been impressed to see that young people also seem less hindered by the negative stigma of mental illness.
In other words, they are not afraid. They are not intimidated by differences in others, nor are they afraid to admit to (and post about) emotional struggles within themselves. Sometimes to our dismay, they freely share intimate details of inner pain with close friends and not-so-close followers alike.
Of course, you might know of parents who are begging their teen to go to counseling. I propose that the refusal is not driven by negative stigma, but simply because they don’t want to change, or believe counseling isn’t necessary to change.
Adults are a different story. We have issues. We were told that emotional struggles are a sign of weakness. We were told that the mind holds dark, shameful secrets. We err on the side of safety, sometimes avoiding therapy (or any self-reflection) until we are completely miserable. And even then, many will seek a pill, a drink, an affair, the next job, the next purchase, the next post, the next big home project or the next big meal.
Our lives and the lives of our children are arranged in such a way that moments of quiet and self-reflection are rare and fleeting. Feelings of despair, neck tension, or a nagging sense of loneliness can be effortlessly swept aside with a swipe on our phones.
There are times though that we are forced to sit up and pay attention.
You and your spouse have an especially ugly moment. The doctor tells you that your symptoms are “just” stress. Your child comes to you wide-eyed to tell you something is wrong. Then we become afraid. Very afraid.
What eliminates fear? Discussion. Understanding. Honesty. What is required is brutal honesty about your fears, and trust in yourself to endure the truth from your spouse, child, or from yourself. Making the first appointment can be the most difficult part, yet my clients usually report a real sense of relief from this simple step.
I can still feel the sickening weight of fear that I had to endure in order to get myself to that first therapy session back in the late ’80s. The therapist was awful. I left angry, and a few weeks later, I tried another. This one stuck, and it altered my life. I eventually quit my job, returned to graduate school, and became a counselor myself.
Of course, counseling isn’t always transformative, but sometimes a small shift is all that is needed. Actually, most people make life changes without counseling. Many find meaning and self-understanding through friendships, religion, meditation, and spiritual practices. The trick is facing our fear. When we long for something that is important to us, fear inevitably is present.
Fear is a strange messenger. It tells us something is wrong, yes. But sometimes it prompts us to avoid, when really what is needed is bravely taking that next step. This is when self-awareness comes in handy. Is the fear wrapped up in what others will think? Does it reflect a false narrative about ourselves? Can we make a play for our true self despite the fear?
There is nothing scarier than achieving your goals.
For me, I can easily recall the intense fear I felt when, as a 28-year-old counseling intern, I met my first client. She was a 45-year-old woman whose family relationships had fallen apart and who was in the process of filing for bankruptcy. I feigned professionalism to hide my panic. She was a wreck: sad, overwhelmed, self-doubting, and self-deprecating. I remember hearing her story and noticing an amazing survivor’s strength weaved throughout that she simply brushed aside. My fear subsided as curiosity took over. I asked her about her resilience, and over the course of that 9-month internship, she found her footing – and so did I.
I also experienced overwhelming fear the first time I stood up to teach a classroom of college students. And the fear resurfaces whenever I press “publish” on this blog. These professional accomplishments represent times when I am most aligned with my authentic self.
“Our job in this life is not to shape ourselves into some ideal that we imagine we ought to be, but to find out who we already are and become it.” –Steve Pressfield
It is impressive to see young people face their struggles. My hope is that by exploring their inner life now, they won’t have to numb their emotions through college or chase society’s futile expectations. Maybe they will be ahead of the game. Maybe they’ll know their true selves.
While we all don’t need to go to therapy, it wouldn’t hurt any of us to slow down just a bit. Sometimes facing your emotional life is just easier than the pain of avoidance. What would happen if you were to endure the silence? Maybe you could listen to what occurs during the pause. Perhaps attune to the very thing that you’ve been avoiding. What awaits?
My guess? You await. And most likely, a richer, more authentic version of you.