I highly recommend professional counseling for those who have suffered any kind of abuse whether in childhood or from an intimate partner. Sometimes people feel like failures if they seek professional counseling. It is a sign of weakness, isn’t it? Wrong! In my opinion, knowing you need help and assertively looking for it is wisdom, not weakness.
The following is taken from my book A Journey to Healing After Emotional Abuse.
Many Christians feel embarrassed about going to see a professional counselor. After all, God and the Bible should be all we need, right? Wrong! God gave us each other to be His hands and feet here on earth.
You do not need to feel ashamed for seeking help after experiencing abuse. Tweet This
Do You Need Counseling?
How do you discern whether you need professional counseling? I recommend it to anyone who has been abused, but I strongly recommend professional counseling if you:
- are depressed
- are harming or thinking about harming yourself
- are considering suicide
- plan to physically harm someone else
- feel you have gone backward in your healing process, or you have made no progress for several months
- have extremely painful relationships with loved ones, and they are not improving
- are feeling stuck in your anger or feel frequently fearful.
When you are ready to try this, I recommend you try hard to find a skilled counselor. If you can’t afford one, look for one who will charge you on a sliding scale fee. This means they will charge you based upon how much you can afford. Some churches will help their members with counseling fees, or they have counselors who are members who will provide treatment for free. Many universities or seminaries offer counseling at a discounted rate, or for free. Many places of employment offer mental health benefits or employee assistance programs as part of their health insurance package. Be persistent: you can receive help with the cost of counseling. If you have tried everything you can think of, and right now find no way to afford individual counseling, try group counseling sessions, which usually cost less than individual sessions, and can be just as effective. Also, many women’s crisis centers offer support groups and hotlines for abuse victims for free. Look around and get the help you can afford.
If you are depressed, you may struggle with keeping your appointments, even if you do find a good counselor. You may be too depressed to go, or you may just want to retreat within yourself and you may begin to talk yourself out of the need to go. However, as Emily Avagliano says in her book, Dating After Trauma, “Don’t listen to a depressed mind. Don’t even indulge it. Just go to a counselor. If the first one does not help, go to a second or third counselor.” *
When looking for a counselor, pay attention to their skills rather than their religion. Christians often think they must have a Christian counselor. Non-Christians believe they must have a Non-Christian counselor. Religion doesn’t matter. A counselor who does not have the skills you need will not help you. Non-Christian counselors will not likely try to talk you out of your faith, nor would a Christian counselor try to convince you of their faith. If they do, they aren’t good counselors; simply find another one. As Isaiah 61:5 says:
Strangers will shepherd your flocks; foreigners will work your fields and vineyards.
In other words, a good counselor of any religion can bless you if you let them. A friend once put it this way: If your house were on fire, would you ask the fireman his religion?
Try to find a counselor who is trained in treating domestic violence and trauma. You have been through trauma, whether your abuse was physical or not. Finding a counselor who uses cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) would be wise. CBT is an evidence-based counseling method, which means it has proven effective in countless professional studies. CBT focuses on specific problems and comes up with specific solutions. CBT is based on the theory that what we think affects what we feel and what we feel affects how we act.
CBT therapists believe you respond to a situation based on what you believe about yourself, the world, and your future. Also, your core beliefs are shaped by your past experiences, good and bad. These include the abuse, trauma, and neglect you’ve experienced.
The premise of CBT is that in any event, we have an automatic thought about the event based on our core beliefs. That thought leads to a feeling, which leads to a behavior, and that behavior tends to reinforce our beliefs. The goal of CBT is to challenge our automatic thoughts to see if they are true. If they aren’t true, decide what is true.
This new truth can lead to new feelings and new behaviors. Tweet This
These new behaviors provide new information that can change our core beliefs. Your therapist will help you identify cognitive distortions (wrong thinking patterns) and replace them with truth. Learning to challenge your thoughts and replace them with new and healthy ones is hard work. But a good CBT therapist will help you make the changes.
I will share an example of how this works in my life. When my step kids don’t respond to me when I speak to them, my automatic thoughts are: They’re ignoring me on purpose; they are treating me like my ex-husband did; they are purposely trying to hurt me; they don’t love me; I am unlovable. When I have these thoughts, I feel worthless, sad, hurt, frightened, and angry. These feelings lead me to withdraw from them, behave passive-aggressively, or begin yelling at them for not speaking to me. All of my behaviors cause distance between us, which then reinforces my core belief that I am unlovable. My counselor second-husband says, “The more often you hear a lie, the easier it is to believe, but that doesn’t make it true.”
Emily Avagliano says a turning point in her healing occurred when she began not trusting her brain. Instead of believing her thoughts and feelings, she questioned them, talked back to them. She told herself, “A thought is a thought; it is not you.” ** Here are some of the questions she asked herself when she had automatic, negative thoughts: ***
- Is this really true? Do I need more data before I can accurately draw this conclusion?
- What other outcomes could occur (when you assume the worst will occur)?
- Besides giving up, what else can I do to influence this situation in a calm and assertive manner?
- Am I being a perfectionist?
- What advice would I give a good friend who told me this? (We often have more compassion for our friends than for ourselves.)
- Is it realistic? That is, do you expect to have no conflicts your entire life?
- How long should I suffer this fate? (Even if you do something wrong, how long do you think you should be punished for it?)
- Is this helpful criticism I am overreacting to? Is this based on one person’s opinion?
- Am I ignoring the good in a situation and only focusing on the bad?
Of course, all of these questions don’t apply to every situation. In the case of my step kids ignoring me, a CBT counselor would help me apply question number one—Is it true? Do I need more data before I can accurately draw this conclusion?—to my core belief that I am unlovable. Yes, I have been treated as if I was unlovable by people in my childhood, and by my ex-husband, but does that mean I am unlovable? Today, I have many people in my life who love me: my husband, my friends, my children, and most importantly, Jesus, who loved me enough to die on the cross so I could be with him for all eternity. If God loved me that much, I must be lovable.
Once I am able to see that I am truly lovable, my feelings about the situation can change. Yes, perhaps my step kids are ignoring me on purpose; however, that doesn’t mean I am unlovable. Therefore, I can decide whether to address their behavior. Perhaps I will ignore it. Perhaps I can lovingly ask them if something is bothering them. The change in my perspective can definitely alter my behavior.
Let’s say I lovingly ask my stepdaughter if something is bothering her, and she bursts into tears, lays her head on my shoulder, and begins telling me about how her best friend bullied her at school that day. Her action of sharing her life and pain will begin to change my core belief that I am unlovable.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing
In addition to CBT, I also found Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) **** therapy to be helpful. EMDR is a type of psychotherapy that helps people heal quickly from trauma. Studies have shown that a relatively short treatment using EMDR can be as effective as years of psychotherapy. EMDR therapy demonstrates that the mind can in fact heal from psychological trauma, much as the body recovers from physical trauma.
The therapy works this way: traumatic memories are often stored in the part of the brain that controls emotion. The counselor will stimulate your brain either by making your eyes go back and forth (similar to the Rapid Eye Movement [REM] you experience during sleep), or by delivering a slight pulse, first in one of your hands, then the other, back and forth. He will then ask you to think of a painful memory. Your brain will quickly move from one memory to another, instinctively knowing how to reprocess these memories and heal itself. By moving the sensation in your hands, or your eyes, across the midline of your brain, you are allowing both hemispheres of your brain to be engaged in therapy. The traumatic memory is reprocessed and moved from the emotional part of your brain to the thinking/reasoning part of your brain. This takes away the emotional power of the memory.
With EMDR therapy, trauma victims find that the meaning of the painful events they have suffered are transformed on an emotional level. Victims shift from feeling horror and self-disgust to holding the firm belief, “I survived it and I am strong.” Unlike talk therapy, the insights clients gain in EMDR come from reprocessing the memories inside their own brain, rather than from anything the counselor does. The client moves quickly from feeling debased by her experiences to feeling empowered.
What if your counselor believes you should take medications, such as anti-depressants or mood stabilizers? Many struggle with this, believing taking medications for a mental health problem is a sign they have somehow failed morally or they are not trusting God enough. I don’t believe this is true. I believe some of us are predisposed to mental health issues the same way others are predisposed to having high blood pressure or diabetes. Often, mental illness is caused by missing chemicals in the brain, which mood-altering drugs can supply. If you have worked with your counselor to alter your moods via counseling and you still struggle, your counselor may recommend you see a psychiatrist or medical doctor to determine whether medications might be right for you.
You may need to take medications for several months, a year, or the rest of your life. Either way, do not be dismayed. Remember, Jesus didn’t come for the healthy, but for the sick, (Matthew 9:12,13). And as it says in Romans 8:31-39, nothing will separate us from God’s love:
What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:
“For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Finding a good counselor can be a process. You will want to search for someone who can both challenge and support you in your journey toward healing. Having someone invest in you and supply you with the skills to live a healthy life is worth your investment in time and money.
Question: Have you experienced professional counseling? What was your experience?
I pray blessings over you all today.
*Emily Avagliano, Dating After Trauma: How to Find the Love of Your Life After Experiencing an Abusive Relationship, Rape or Sexual Abuse (Bad Kitty Print Shoppe: USA, 2013), 16.
**Emily Avagliano, Dating After Trauma, 64.
***Emily Avagliano, Dating After Trauma, 65–74.
****EMDR Institute, Inc., “What is EMDR?”