Dear America: an unusual plea for help

hands to heart

If I sound desperate, I am. I’ve tried everything I can think of to reach you: reason, confrontation, repetition, humor. It’s not in my nature to give up. In fact, just thinking about it, depresses me. So, this time, I’m writing to ask for help. But it’s not the usual kind of help such as donations of food, clothing or money. Rather, it’s about helping me to help you.

It truly pains me to watch you, everyday, make self-defeating decisions – knowing as I do how avoidable they are. Trust me. No matter how many books, articles, songs, and movies are sent out into our collective conscious, you won’t learn from them. Nothing will change as long as you ignore your mental health.

When I was a US Army Social Work Officer, a Commander once told me, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” What if I told you you don’t need to worry ever again? That you have the instincts to make good decisions? That arguing is unnecessary? That no matter how alone or inadequate or misunderstood you feel, you’re not? You’re a lot more complicated and your problems a lot more complex than you give yourself credit for. If they weren’t you would have solved them by now. But that’s what I’m here for.

As a psychotherapist, I’m used to the skepticism, even ridicule, of mental health. In fact, the irony is no one understands your reluctance more than I. But by dismissing mental health you are, in fact, rejecting yourself. You’re wandering through life avoiding the essence of who you are. Do you have any idea how self-destructive this is – not just to you personally but to us, as a society?

What the Coronavirus Pandemic reminds us is, regardless of where we live on the planet – China, Iran, United Kingdom, Italy, America – we’re all human. We need air to breath and food and water to sustain us. And there’s one other thing all human beings have in common: emotions. As I frequently remind my patients, its rare you feel one way about something. In fact, most things in life you have a mixture of feelings about. There’s a reason for that: survival.

You need balance in order to thrive. Only when you acknowledge all your feelings and problem solve a compromise between them, can you meet all your needs. Anytime you ignore one of your feelings, you’re ignoring one of your needs, leaving you perpetually dissatisfied, regretful, resentful, conflicted, guilt-ridden, and more. There is no such thing as a wrong or bad feeling. It’s how you cope with your feelings that determines whether they are self-defeating or harmful to those around you.

Imagine what would happen if you put your hand on a hot stove and couldn’t feel pain. You’d damage your hand. Uncomfortable feelings work the same way. They protect you from making personally harmful decisions. Now imagine if you could feel the pain, but couldn’t tell where in your body it was coming from. You’d have to move around until the pain stopped, inflicting more damage, causing anxiety and depression, and wasting vital energy. That’s where psychotherapy comes in.

Despite what you think you know, a therapist’s job is not to give advice. There are plenty of people in your life already doing that. It’s also not my job to judge or criticize. You’re already doing that to yourself. And it’s not my job to fix your problems. Nobody can do that for you.

A lot of people think therapists are mind-readers. We’re not. We’re just very observant. When I started studying psychology, I realized I “saw” things others didn’t. I dubbed this “wearing Superman glasses.” Over 28 years of practice, I’ve learned to trust my instincts. I’ve also learned everyone has vulnerabilities and a story. It is hard to put into words how privileged I feel, often being the only person to whom you share your most personal experiences.

Psychotherapy is a journey of empowerment. I like to think of myself as a trail guide, leading you through the peaks and valleys of your past, present and future, along the way taking the time to understand you and, most importantly, encouraging you to be understanding of yourself. Helping you access your innate abilities so you can solve your own problems and reach your full potential.

I’ve always found it ironic that people think, “If I go to therapy, that must mean I’m weak, mentally ill or ‘crazy’,” as though not going to therapy means you’re strong and psychologically fit. Unfortunately, most people go through life driven by feelings they’re not even aware of. Only by acknowledging your feelings can you be proactive as opposed to reactive, and make deliberate, healthy decisions.

Imagine if a child came up to you and said, “I’m upset.” Would you ignore him? Probably not. If you did, do you think the child would walk away like nothing happened? Of course not. Whatever was upsetting him is now compounded by your rejection. Instead, you’d sit down with the child, ask what’s wrong, and help him problem-solve. Your feelings are no different. They don’t go away when you ignore them.

I frequently tell my patients, “We don’t have a crystal ball, but we can have a tool box full of coping skills.” This is how you achieve control over your life: not by anticipating every problem and controlling every aspect of a situation, or by avoiding mistakes. It’s by arming yourself with emotional, cognitive, problem-solving, and behavioral skills to adapt. Without these, it’s like going on a journey without a map and supplies. The best you can hope for is survival.

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