About this time last year, I checked myself into counseling. The trigger was, I was having a conversation with a peer and out of my mouth, flew, “But I am not sure if that is a gay idea or not”. And, this individual happens to identify as gay. And, I have never in my life used the term gay in that context before. I realized I was a walking zombie and needed help immediately before I burned more bridges.
Counseling has a stigma that “it is only for people who have problems or are crazy”. But, I will say it takes an immense amount of courage to go, and to continue to go. It’s incredibly difficult, because most of the time, your counselor is pointing out inconsistencies in your thinking or inadequacies in your schemas.
Your counselor will ask you to change your way of thinking, which takes conscious effort and work. One of my issues is that I tend to give too much to people and then am disappointed when they don’t live up to my expectations. So, my counselor asked me to change my thinking; instead of focusing on being let down and disappointed, she framed is as, “they are doing the best they can do”. And now, I am genuinely able to do nice things for other people without having any expectations of some kind of return.
Your counselor will bring up repressed memories and things you neglect to think about. When I was in middle school, my mom invited one of her friends to stay at our house while she was ‘in between jobs’. My siblings will bring up this lady and I have absolutely NO recollection of it, which is kind of scary to think about–for some reason, my brain completely blocked it and through counseling, I could figure out why and fill in the missing, blanked out pieces.
But, perhaps the most powerful skill I learned from counseling was how to look back at events with an objective point of view. It is actually a very neat phenomenon to occur, and despite the fact that I haven’t been back to counseling in quite a few months, I still continue the process in my everyday life.
I am an idealist; I like to see the good in people, avoid thinking about the bad. I hang onto relationships, I give my students the benefit of the doubt. I never believe that someone would be malicious, a cheater, a liar. So, when someone behaves in a way that does not fit with my idealistic angelic schema of people, I go under cognitive dissonance, which turns into excuses, anxiety, avoidance.
The first person I did this with was my dad. My dad was my hero. I called him three times a day, went over to his house after work every day. He did my laundry, made my lunch, cooked me dinner. I raved about him being my Atticus Finch to my students. And then, he got a wife. And, this wife did not fit my schema of who my father was. I went into a mental turmoil and started questioning every relationship, every decision, every perception I had about my childhood. It was another identity crisis. So, in counseling, I started going back through some of my memories of my father–the time he went to watch me at nationals, the time we went to North Carolina, the time we went to that New Year’s party–and had to look at them from a different standpoint–maybe my dad had different motives, maybe he made flawed decisions, maybe things did not happen the way my mind remembered. When I was 15 years old, I was admitted to the hospital for a week with ‘meningitis’, and after re-visiting that memory and looking back objectively, I realized it probably was not meningitis at all, but rather my body’s way of converting everything that was happening in my life into a physical symptom and saying, “STOP”. Although my relationship with my dad is not the same as it was, it has blossomed into something a little more adult, a little more mature. I don’t rely on him to make every decision for me anymore,–I don’t call him everyday, I can make my own lunch, I can choose my own car insurance by myself–and that is healthy (but, he does still pay my cellphone bill…)
The next individual I had to do this with was my boyfriend. At the time I went through counseling, we were still dating. And, as I talked to my counselor about him, she began to reveal some red flags and question his behaviors in ways that I never saw before. Maybe that text message from that girl was something a little more. Maybe that time he blew up in the car was a sign of an abusive relationship. Maybe those comments he made about me were immature and maybe I shouldn’t have been so forgiving/made up so many excuses for him. And, when we broke up, I had to go through six years of some of the most intense memories, filter out the emotions, and view them in an objective way. I had to see those vehement fights we got in as indicators that we were oil and water. I had to pinpoint the moment when we both clearly checked out of the relationship and knew it wasn’t going to work. I had to see those disrespectful comments, those unwarranted advances, those neglectful behaviors he had towards me without excuses and without defenses. I had to understand what everyone else saw–through an objective lens. While it took some processing, now, I can look back on the times we spent with each other, visit the spots we spent so much time at, listen to the songs we branded, and share the stories of us growing up together without any emotion attached–no longing, animosity, no fondness or anger. The memories are just memories of things that happened, the emotions filtered out. It’s a cool experience.
Here is kind of how the process works: first, you have to let yourself grieve. For some people, this looks like getting really, really drunk and making out with a bunch of random people. For others, it means having a cry fest and watching chick flicks at your best friend’s house (probably also drunk). For me, I take trips, re-evaluate my goals, start projects, write more on my blog. Next, you have to take a step away from the situation and not think about it for a while. Distance allows you to filter out the emotions and prepares you to use that objective lens; you meet some new people, gain some more life experience, learn new things about yourself. And, when the time is right, something will trigger you back to those memories. You will re-visit them in your mind, you will use your new life experiences, you will begin to understand situations in different ways, and you will realize why things happened the way they happened.
Although experiencing these inconsistencies, revelations of how selfish people are, and unforeseen heartbreaks will never not suck, understanding the process makes it easier. I am going through this same process, for the umpteenth time in my life, with the last guy I seriously dated (I had some friends and other people in my life that I had to objectively look at, but boys are way more interesting to read about) and I am able to recognize that, there are ultimately three stages I will go through (the grief, the distance, the re-visitations), and by the time I have completed the last stage–when I can look back on the time we spent together, the deep conversations we had without getting butterflies in my stomach and without feeling a longingness, when I can share stories and talk about him without any feelings attached–I am ready to move on. Sometimes moving on means meeting someone else, sometimes it means getting a promotion and setting new goals for yourself; in each case, it depends.
Since we didn’t date for that long, I bounced back from the grieving stage pretty quickly. While I missed talking to him and sharing my life with him, I found other ways to fulfill those desires–through my friends, my colleagues, my room mates, my blog. I spent a good chunk of time in the ‘distance’ phase. I pushed him to the back of my mind, went about my daily business, finished projects, created new ones, met some new people, did some cool stuff.
And, as I expected, when it was time, something triggered me to start thinking about him again. Since then, I have been re-visiting the time we spent together, the conversations we had, the commonalities we shared, and have been trying to look at them in an objective light, to figure out when things started going south so that I can ultimately learn for the next time. I remember the infamous “Love Letter” that sparked the decline. At first, I thought it was just him, but since, I realized that I probably made him feel like a rebound, I was insensitive, and that I must look like a (insert bad word here). I am accepting my own faults, fixing my dichotomous key, and seeing him from a different perspective. While things take an unpredictable amount of time, I feel comforted in that fact that full healing will eventually come. And until then, I have to let myself bask in this process, that will inevitably happen over and over and over again as I get older.
And, yes, I just created a step-by-step list for dealing with cognitive dissonance regarding people’s perceptions of other people. This is what counseling did to me. And I absolutely love it.