This story comes to us from a client who is now six years into counseling. They reflect on their experience in early counseling, when they saw changes in their personal and professional relationships, and how they learned to communicate in a newfound voice.
When I began counseling, I didn’t really know what to expect. Truthfully, I was in a fair amount of personal and interpersonal distress at that time. I was finally motivated to get into counseling because I was simply tired of the feelings and thought patterns I had been experiencing for years on end.
I was afraid of people and of what they thought about me. I was afraid that they might go away……that they wouldn’t like me. I always seemed to be reacting to others, and the actions of others seemed to have so much power over me. I was anxious, easily provoked, and seemed to constantly have a running list of fears in my head about how others perceived me or how they might react to my actions. This was true in both my close personal relationships and my day-to-day professional relationships. It was exhausting, and I felt like I was constantly on edge.
Then, I began my counseling journey.
As I learned to examine my feelings in my counseling sessions and to really take them seriously, I noticed that the way I expressed myself was changing. This seemed to be indiscriminate to who I was talking to. I was finding my voice in both big and small ways. I started to notice it in the smallest ways, in fact. Maybe a waiter or barista would get my order wrong. Rather than stuff my displeasure down, I would say something like, “This isn’t what I asked for.” This is minor, I know, but it was a big deal to me at the time!
I noticed big changes in my communication patterns within about three months of starting counseling. At some point, my partner asked what was wrong. He suggested that I seemed “prickly” or oppositional at times, and somewhat detached or “shut down” at others. I was surprised to get this feedback! I knew even then that while I was experiencing a new range of emotions and learning to process them all differently, I certainly didn’t feel any differently about him.
Today, I have more clarity on what I could have said to explain what I was experiencing. It wasn’t that I was being oppositional, it was that I was feeling comfortable enough with myself and him to express disagreement. It wasn’t that I was withholding or shutting down, it’s that I no longer felt the need to react and be on such high alert for everything he did. I found words, at that time, to convey to him that none of this had anything to do just with him. I explained that I was experiencing a lot of changes as a result of my counseling, and that while I was changing, my feelings toward him or our relationship had not.
It was happening in my professional relationships too. I used to be the kind of employee who said yes to everything, even if it made me miserable. As I felt more comfortable in my skin, I stopped feeling the need to do that. While my relationship toward my boss and coworkers hadn’t changed, my relationship to the words “yes” and “no” changed, which affected them, and they took note. Eventually we all became accustomed to this, and they continued to respect me and value my work. They understood that I now had boundaries about my work-life balance, and that I couldn’t take on more and more work at the expense of my wellbeing. What was I so afraid of all that time?
Today, I recognize that assertiveness, setting boundaries, and saying “no” are all a part of my primary voice and the way I am in the world, as well as my innate traits of kindness, dutifulness, and agreeability. All of that can coexist!
What I can say is that I no longer make myself miserable out of fear for how others might react. I express what I need, what I want, what I like, and what I don’t like in a clear, respectful way, and I allow them to receive that information in whatever way they will. I can’t control the reactions of others for better or for worse.
My advice to anyone considering therapy would be to anticipate that there will be some change in your communication and interactions, whether they are big or small. As you get feedback from those around you that something seems to have changed, express that there is nothing “wrong” with you or between you, but that you have been reflecting and learning new tools to be a better communicator. Express that you are happy with the “new” you, and, when appropriate, describe that this is a result of counseling and a renewed investment in your health and wellness.
If these changes in the way you communicate and interact with others are remotely appealing, I would encourage you to seek out a therapist who you trust and start by simply describing to them the feelings you have in your relationships. In my experience, from there they will guide you in the right direction, and years from now you will appreciate how they helped you find your true voice.
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