Can Counseling Help Me? Where Do I Start? Because John Wayne Didn’t Go to a Counselor…

Dear Hagrid,

My wife says I should see a counselor for help, unless I’d rather move out.  I’d like to be mad at her for the ultimatum, but, honestly, I can see where she’s coming from.  I always said I’d never be like my dad, but I think I’ve turned into him. I don’t hit her, like my dad did to my mom, but I know I’m a butt when I don’t get my way.

Growing up, we made fun of people who went to counseling.  You were supposed to be John Wayne, I guess, and just figure it out by yourself.  Well, that hasn’t worked.   I know that I can be better than this. And I don’t want to lose my wife.  I love her.  But, counseling?  Can you help me understand how getting a counselor could help?


Dear Ex-John Wayne

Thanks for being real.  Humans tend to like talking in circles, avoiding the truth, and thus never really getting anywhere, whereas in the canine world, our noses are quite adept at scenting baloney.  You smell like a man who is ready to work to make needed changes, despite your anxiety about counseling (and those are elements of John Wayne that are worth keeping).  You also sound like a man who loves his wife.

Counselors are Like Trail Guides

Here’s the thing about going to counseling.  You are still the boss of you.  So don’t worry about losing your ability to make your own decisions about your life.

Some people go to counseling looking for someone to fix them.  Literally.  Like the counselor will have a magic wand to wave and all problems will be solved.  Like, they won’t have to take any actions or make any changes.  But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that change requires, well, change.

Without my help as a trail-guide, my sidekick would be stuck walking on the boring parts of the path, only staying on the paved trails, and thus missing out on all the best stuff. Thanks to me, she has had to run all over the place…

The counselor or therapist isn’t the one actually living your life.  You are.  It’s your path.  So, for change to happen, change has to be something that you commit to and then you follow that up by actions.  New healthy actions.  Over and over.  Until they become old habits. The most caring or skilled counselor in the world can’t make a dent in your problems unless you are willing to do the work, inside and outside of the counselor’s office.

Seeing a counselor is a partnership, of sorts.  They walk with you on your journey, like a mountaineering guide helping someone through a particularly difficult terrain—one you haven’t been able to get through all by yourself—but  it’s always your journey.  I know a lot about this because I help my human with this all the time.

Counselors are Like Plumbers

That’s all well and good, and you are obviously ready and willing to work hard, but you aren’t so sure yet that a counselor can provide any help. I mean, what even is counseling, anyway?

It might help if you think of a counselor like a plumber.  For simple problems, like a clogged drain, maybe you can John-Wayne-it (ie. find a DIYS you-tube video online, get your head in cupboard under the sink, and, perhaps with a few choice curse words during tight spots, fix it yourself).  Maybe.  Hopefully.  Only, sometimes, a plumbing issue is something bigger than what you are capable of trouble-shooting at home.

Enter the amazing plumber—a professional trades-person that you call and ask for help when the problem is out of your league.  Is something wrong with you if you have to call a plumber?  Heck, no.  Quite the opposite!  Plumbers go to school to learn about plumbing.  Which actually is a science.  And an art (as any good plumber will tell you).  This means that if you have a plumbing problem and you call a professional, you are smart.

Plumbing involves these amazing systems that primarily work “behind the scenes.”  A home is filled with sub-systems of pipes, and yet, as important as these systems are, they are pretty much invisible to the people who live in the home.  (I just know that my good person turns a knob and water comes out to fill my dish).  We non-plumbers forget all about the plumbing…until something isn’t working, that is.

Kind of like with you.  You have an invisible system at work—your own personal “psychology plumbing,” as it were—and it’s important that things are working well, or you and those around you will pay the price.  Very often, our relationships serve as a barometer to the urgent nature of a problem (and the importance of calling in a professional to see what the underlying issue might be).

There are a lot of important things going on behind the scenes in a person’s psychology—things that a layperson might find perplexing (or impossible!), but that a trained professional can see, diagnose (if needed), and help you figure out how to heal, manage, or work through.

Have a plumbing problem that is bigger than what you can trouble-shoot?  Call a plumber.  They are trained in the science of plumbing.  Have a psychological problem (personality, emotions, thoughts, behaviors, motivation, etc.) that isn’t solved, despite your personal efforts to fix it?  Call a counselor.  They are trained in the science of counseling (sometimes called therapy, treatment, or psychotherapy).  They have a language for those invisible things and can help you sort things out, make sense of them, and learn how to make changes.

Consulting with a trained professional about a significant problem you are experiencing just makes sense.

Finding a Counseling Match is Like Playing a Shape Sorting Game

That said, some counselors are better than others, and some styles of counseling are better than others.  You want to get a good counselor with a good style.  But, what does good look like for you?

This is where I’m going to give you an answer that you might not like.  Because this is where it’s a little different from plumbing.

Because, I don’t know.

Unlike basic household plumbing, when it comes to humans, every person is a little different.  That means that what will “click” for you might not click for the person next to you.  What is good for the guy down the street might not be a great fit for the lady at the supermarket.

You know how those shape sorting cube’s, work, right?  I don’t know if you played with those when you were a little cub or not, but I can tell you that I sure enjoyed soothing my aching puppy gums on some of the lovely wooden pieces…  The young humans will pick up a piece, perhaps a star-like shape, thinking it might fit into the square hole, but, no matter how they push, it just doesn’t fit.  What is the problem?

The piece isn’t bad.

The puzzle isn’t bad.

The piece just isn’t the right piece for that specific spot.  It will, however, be a perfect fit for a different spot.  And this is what you want to keep in mind when you look for your counselor.  You want to look for the right fit.  For you.

Some people live in small towns or have limited counseling options due to insurance.  Don’t stress.  Find the professional that is the “closest fit.”  For you.  If you are in an area with limited selection, ‘good-enough’ can constitute a fit.  As with the shapes game, the square block can fit into the rectangle opening.  It works.  Might not be perfect, but it’s a lot better than your other option, which is nothing.  You will learn a few things, even if it isn’t initially a match made in heaven.  Give it your best and that rectangle might just surprise you.

Bottom line: dump the idea of “good” and look, instead, for “fit,” whether in personality or approach.  Because, in this case, good is something that fits.

How will you know that you and the counselor are a fit?  That often takes 4-6 sessions.  The first session can be really uncomfortable (because when has it ever been comfortable to go meet a stranger that you might open up to about your deepest darkest secrets???).   Don’t judge the counselor on your first session, unless it is just that miserable.  Give the relationship a bit of time to figure itself out.  Talk to the therapist about what you want from counseling.  See if you feel a growing sense of comfort as you come back over the next few sessions.

You should feel welcomed, not tolerated, and safe, not judged.  That said, you also don’t want a counselor who will just tell you what a sweetie-pants you are and always agree with every single thing you say.  Your ego might feel amazing, but your marriage probably won’t survive.  So, do expect that your counselor may say or ask things that challenge you, here and there, and that is a good thing, too.  (You can’t repair the pipe if the plumber doesn’t help you see the leak, no matter how much you might wish that there wasn’t one).

If the counselor is just not a fit after 4-6 sessions, thank them for their effort and look for someone else.  Perhaps you can ask them for a recommendation.  A good counselor won’t take it personally and will be happy to help you find one.  They will understand that finding the right fit is important, because if you see someone who you just don’t care for, you won’t get the help that you need.  As with any service, you don’t always find the right fit immediately, but that’s no excuse to stop looking.

Counseling Methods are like Restaurant Menu Choices

There are many different methods, theories, and approaches of counseling, but, remember, you are looking for the right fit.  If you’ve googled different types of counseling already, you might be really overwhelmed.  There are sure a lot of approaches out there!  How will you ever pick the correct one?  You might be getting as agitated as I do when I see a flock of birds and can’t figure out which one to chase.

Please try to relax.  Research shows that a lot of types/styles of counseling can work for people.  This means, many types/styles will probably help you in one way or another.  Kind of like how I enjoy chasing many types of birds.  The most important thing, at least to start with, seems to be the therapeutic relationship that you will build with your counselor.   This article provides a great list of the key ingredients you will hope to see in a good counselor.  If you like the counselor, the chances are fairly good that you will be helped by their approach.

Counseling approaches or methods are much like the options on a menu at your favorite restaurant.  Only a few of the dishes, if any, would be something that you wouldn’t care for.  A few dishes might be awful, a few dishes only tolerable, but most of the menu options would be interesting, tasty, and satisfying enough.  Sure, as you try them, you eventually find a few that become absolute favorites.  But that isn’t to say that the other dishes weren’t delicious and nourishing, or that you wasted your time trying them.  So it is with counseling approaches.  There are many good ones.

Personally, I have been told that I have low standards when it comes to restaurants.  I like just about anything that’s edible, including table legs, which my counselor-sidekick says aren’t edible (though I beg to differ), and the delicacies in their dumpster…  If your standards are higher than mine, there is still only one way that you are going to find out what you like when it comes to the different counseling approaches.  It’s the same thing you have to do when you look at the menu at a new restaurant.  Try something.  You have to give things a try in order to find out what you do and don’t like.  If you like it, go with it.  If it really doesn’t “taste” good (metaphorically speaking), say so, and then ask for your other options.

Speaking of menu options, many counselors today have adopted an ‘eclectic’ style of counseling, which is to say that they have been trained in a few different styles, and can then pick and choose the approach that works best for that particular client or problem.   This means that as the counselor gets to know you, the counselor will likely tailor their approach to best meet your particular needs.  Perfect.

What Kind of Counselor?

As there are “types” of chefs, too, such as the pastry chef, the line cook, the sous-chef, and the dog-biscuit maker (my personal favorite), there are also different “types” of professionals who offer counseling services:

  • Pychologists have their PhD or PsyD, which is a doctorate degree, and so, while they often provide general counseling services, it is also common for them to be called upon for some of the more complex or severe issues as well as more advanced testing and assessments.
  • Master’s level Counselors (LPC, LMHC) and Master’s level Social Workers (MSW, LCSW) have a slightly different training and focus, but both tend to see the same types of clients, providing psychotherapy services for many general problems, including mental health, addictions, family issues, emotions, trauma, and other every day problems. You can read about the differences here.
  • There are Marriage and Family Therapists (MFT, LMFT), who have received master’s level training specifically focused on couples and families.  After you work with a counselor on your own individual stuff, you and your wife might then benefit from finding an LMFT to help you improve your marriage, for example.
  • Psychiatrists (MD’s or DO’s) are medical doctors who specialize in mental health. I mention them here not so much for counseling, though they can do that if needed, but because they are particularly helpful when you are wanting a medically-trained specialist to help you explore medication options for your mental health needs, should you and your counselor think that would be worth considering.
  • There are also counselors who specialize in working with children, with addictions, with employment/career issues, or provide counseling only through very specific mediums (such as being specially trained to use horses, art, or music in therapy), religiously oriented counselors, and many more like those.

And, importantly, special licensing boards oversee all of these, so it’s important to ask your prospective counselor what type of license and credentials he/she has.  You will be vulnerable with your counselor, of course, so it’s important that the relationship is protected by good ethical and professional guidelines.

Now What? 

When you need a plumber, you call one.  If you don’t know which plumber to call, you might ask around, or you might just do a quick search and call the numbers that pop up.  You go from there.

The same is true for finding a counselor.  The most important thing for you to do is to see what counseling options are available in your area.  Ask around, use a search engine, or look in your phone book.  Pick out the top 3-5 counselors that look interesting to you.  Then check them out online or by phone!

If your potential counselor has a web page, you can read about the issues they specialize in, their training and background, and about what counseling theories or approaches they may use.   If they look like they might be a potential fit, give them a call and talk further about whether setting up a visit would work.

If the counselor you are interested in does not have a website, or if you are going to a community mental health clinic with many counselor options, you can do your initial “shopping” by phone, calling the potential counselor or clinic representative to ask them which of their counselors they would recommend for your specific needs.  You will want to know what kinds of problems they can help you with, what their expertise is, and what their general style or approach is.

Don’t be afraid to ask these kinds of questions.  You are looking for someone who can help you with your particular issue—it makes sense to shop a bit.  If you call a mechanic shop for help and learn that they only specialize in fixing Subaru’s (but you need help with your giant diesel truck), you did not just waste your time.  You are talking to a professional in the same general field, right?   So ask!  Ask the Subaru dude who he would go to for help with a giant diesel truck.  Likewise, if your counseling phone call shows that you aren’t a fit for that therapist, ask them who they would recommend.  You might get a great name and number out of the deal.

Once you narrow down a few viable options, it’s time to take the plunge.  Schedule a first appointment.  It might be a perfect fit on the first try, or it might not, but, hey, at least you’re making forward motion, right?  Think of it as a consult.  Just a chance to get to know each other.  If it doesn’t work, try the next person on your list.  …And, just like that, you are on your adventure.  And your wife is feeling really happy with you, too.

Best of luck to you, ex-John Wayne.  You are dumping the silly notion that man is an island until himself, but you are keeping the best of John Wayne’s characteristics.  Which is to say, you are showing courage in the face of adversity, the willingness to slog through hard things, honesty about your own shortcomings, and a healthy optimism that change is possible.  I’m excited for you and the wonderful changes that are ahead.

Paw Bumps,


PS.  My dear reading humans, there are many more good and interesting aspects to counseling than can fit in this blog post.  If you have additional tips about counseling, a type of counseling that helped you, or any other tasty bits of related advice, please use the comments box below to share. Your thoughts, reflections, and experiences are welcome.


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