IMG_0721I have several clients currently pursuing their graduate degree in counseling. While they’re enjoying their studies and learning a lot, they’re also coming up against the rigid and, at times, judgmental model that informs most Western-based schools. For the foundational textbook for all accredited programs is the DSM-V: the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. As evidenced by the title, the main purpose of the manual is to learn how to diagnose your clients, which basically means looking for what’s wrong.

We all have plenty of things “wrong” with us; it’s a sign of being human. But we have so much more that’s right. And what I know in my bones is that people are inspired to change and grow in an environment where they feel accepted and loved. We are intrinsically whole, and that place of wholeness dwells undisturbed beneath the walls and wounds of our defenses and heartaches. We needed the walls to survive the pain of childhood, even the second-hand pain of absorbing the unattended wounds of loving parents. But we no longer need them. And the healing work as adults is to soften the walls slowly and gently, with great love, until they crumble and fall to reveal the untouched garden of true Self.

As Rachel Naomi Remen writes in “Kitchen Table Wisdom” (pp. 105-108):

We usually look outside of ourselves for heroes and teachers. It has not occurred to most people that they may already be the role-model they seek. The wholeness they are looking for may be trapped within themselves by beliefs, attitudes, and self-doubt. But our wholeness exists in us now. Trapped though it may be, it can be called upon for guidance, direction, and most fundamentally, comfort. It can be remembered. Eventually we come to live by it.

If you enter into therapy with a counselor who sees you as broken, you will feel broken. But if you’re sitting in front of someone who mirrors back your goodness and everything that’s right about you, you will start to se yourself through those eyes as well. Diagnoses focus on what’s disordered; it’s what the D stands in our garden-variety diagnosis du jour – ADD, ADHD, OCD. If you’re beginning from the mindset that you’re wrong in some way, you’re swimming upstream unnecessarily.

Lets take the common symptom of anxiety. Seen through the lens of pathology we would say that someone has “an anxiety disorder” and the person would naturally feel dis-ordered, as in out-of-order or not working properly. Seen through the lens that views anxiety as a messenger, on the other hand, we would say that someone has the gift of anxiety. Anxiety, a gift? you may ask. Absolutely. For its when you view the manifestations of pain as communication from psyche that something inside needs attention can you peel back the current layer of the onion that needs examination and shedding and move toward your next stage of growth.

In other words, there’s nothing wrong with you for having anxiety or depression or heartache or emptiness. You’re not disordered in any way. Everything is working just fine – better than fine, in fact – when you understand that your pain in all of its manifestations is a signal that something is off-kilter inside. Just like having a stomach ache is your body’s way of communicating that something is awry, so your emotional pain is your psyche’s way of offering an opportunity to learn to attend to yourself with kindness and curiosity so that you can live from your place of wholeness. You’re not defective or disordered; you’re whole and likely highly sensitive, and because nobody was able to guide your intrinsic sensitivity toward creativity or spirituality it had no choice but to morph into anxiety (or any other form of pain).

Looking for what’s healthy and whole underscores everything I do – as a counselor, a wife, a friend, and a mother. This doesn’t mean that I adopt a Pollyanna approach of only seeing what’s right; that would be a state of denial. It means that I focus on strengths, and from that framework of complete acceptance, the places that need attention are naturally revealed. I look for the light first, and then, together, we shine the light on the shadow. That light is inside every person, if only we have eyes to see.

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