You're More Courageous Than You Think

woman frustrated

It Takes Real Courage To Ask For Help

I think courage is an under-utilized word these days. In the minds of most, it seems to be reserved for “big” things, like fighting in a war or rushing into a burning building to save a child. Don’t get me wrong, these are definitely courageous acts worthy of the word. But for most of us, we won’t get the opportunity to show that kind of courage. We will, however, do other things that require our courage – everyday though they may seem.

There are many daily occurrences that require some element of courage. As a mom to twin four year-old daughters, sometimes getting up in the morning feels like an act of courage! And this week in the DC area where I live, just taking to the roads after our blizzard(s?) is courageous (or foolhardy).

But the everyday act of courage that I am privileged to see on a regular basis is starting therapy. If you’ve never been to therapy, just imagine:

You are at the end of your rope. You’ve tried everything you can think of to improve your situation, be it a troubled marriage, conflictual family relationships or mind-numbing depression or anxiety. In desperation you decide to reach out for help, not really knowing where to start but knowing something has to change, and soon. You get online, looking for something, someone who speaks to you, who seems to understand. (This in and of itself is a daunting task; how do you know someone is a good therapist from their online directory listing?) Or maybe you’ve asked a friend for a recommendation; maybe you’ve seen this person speak or read one of their articles, books or blogs. Perhaps it’s as simple as you just like their smile – it seems to say “You can trust me.” Whatever the reason, you take a deep breath and call or email, and make an appointment.

Then you wait, with a mix of fear and hope. Things are still bad but now when you think how bad they are you also dare to think they may be able to change for the better. At the same time you’re terrified that this person may be strange or scary or just not in sync with you, and if that’s the case, you’re not sure you can go back to the exhaustive searching…this might just be your one shot.

The day finally comes for your appointment. You find the office, are greeted and fill out some paperwork, and all the while your thoughts race. When you sit down with the therapist a few minutes later with your heart pounding, you think This is it. Please let it help.

As both a therapist and someone who has been in therapy herself, I can tell you I genuinely appreciate what this is – nothing less than a true act of courage. There are many factors that could have prevented this moment – pain, fear, financial impediments, emotional paralysis. Add to this a potential familial or cultural stigma, and it’s a wonder anyone has the courage to come to therapy at all.

But they do, and I see it every day in my office. They come in shaking, crying, yelling, stonewalling, defensive, desperate, cynical…but with one thing in common: on some level, in some measure, they dare to hope. Sometimes against unbelievable odds, with heart-wrenching stories and no real reason to continue to hold on, they hope. And their hope in therapy, in me, is a gift and an honor. I try to hold it gently but securely, as we walk through that first session and subsequent others together. It is no small thing to open up your heart and mind to a total stranger. It is no small feat to bring what hurts the most into the light, daring to trust you might be able to have the life you want. And there are no promises. Even with this courage, sometimes things don’t work out – despite hard work and good intentions to the contrary, sometimes change doesn’t happen, and things stay broken.

But sometimes they do work out. Sometimes – often, actually – I see the initial investment of hope blossom into real changes in peoples’ lives. I’m with them when they have the “A-ha!” moment that leads them to understand their past and make better decisions in their future. I get to see the lightness return to their step, the smiles return to their faces, the love return to their lives. It’s awesome, and it’s why I love my work. Even if it only happened one time out of a hundred, it would be enough, but it happens much more than that. I know that the main ingredient in this is the courage of my clients – not just the significant courage it takes to come to therapy in the first place, but the courage to keep coming and keep working on things, especially outside the therapy room.

I believe that these people deserve all the good that comes their way. Helping and watching them figure that out is my privilege.