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Carolyn Hax: How to know if you’re ‘ready’ for counseling

(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)
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Adapted from an online discussion.

Dear Carolyn: How do I know I’m “ready” for counseling? My relationship with my parent kills me slowly every day. I am happiest when not engaged, but that seems the cowardly way out. Various sources, including you, suggest counseling as the best way to work through it. I can’t bear the thought of sharing any sort of emotions or history with a complete stranger, especially when I hear people have to reshare as they try two or several counselors to find the right one. And how do you know what is right? Counseling cannot be the only right choice? At the moment, I manage by focusing on everything else that brings happiness. Is it okay to simply NOT have any relationship at all with a parent?

— Managing

Managing: It’s “okay” not to have any relationship at all with a parent (or anyone) if the harm is significant. But whether that step is healthy or itself harmful is hard to determine if you’re not confident in your judgment or ability to self-assess.

So that brings us to the efficacy of counseling. That extra, disinterested, trained, and informed set of eyes can help any of us see things we're too close to see. So I agree with myself that counseling would be a good start.

In fact, your wanting urgently not to confide in a therapist is the most persuasive reason to confide in a therapist. Or two or three to find the “right” person, which I’ll define in a second. Some discomfort with telling our innermost stories to a stranger is to be expected. The acute discomfort you feel with your family experience, though, is not only unnecessary, but also an area of your life where there’s potential for you to feel better almost immediately.

The “total stranger” is actually the point; the barkeeps/fellow travelers/next shoppers in line are classic confidants for no other reason than they can’t use your words against you every Thanksgiving for the rest of your life. The therapist version offers a confidential soundproof box — one that, ahhh, offers a partner in figuring out how to answer these, “Is it okay?” -type questions.

So — the “right” provider is simply one who makes you feel safe(r), supported and heard.

If you absolutely won’t even think about making an appointment, then I suggest reading your way to some answers. The best starter book I’ve run across is “Lifeskills for Adult Children,” by Woititz/Garner. Short and clear. Take care.

Re: Family: The therapists I saw were 100 percent in favor of my reconciling with my family. Be prepared to keep looking for a therapist who will hear you and work for you, not your family whom they’ve never met.

— Anonymous

Anonymous: Bias either way is reason to switch, thanks.

More readers’ thoughts:

· Counseling is not like, boom, complete intimacy on Day 1. It’s a relationship that develops.

· You start off with smaller stuff. By the time you get around to talking about the biggest stuff, your therapist should no longer feel like a stranger.

· If counseling seems too overwhelming, try a support group that addresses codependency.

· I use yoga to relax and get through life’s smaller stresses. And the best way to know when I absolutely need to do yoga is when I really really do not want to do yoga.

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