The Option Of Seeing A Therapist About Your Social Issues Or Related Problems
One thing that may be able to help you with your social problems, or related issues which are contributing to them, is to see a therapist. I'm not trying to convince everyone they have to do it, but I wanted to at least throw the idea out there as an option to think about.
When I make this suggestion it's from the perspective that counseling is just a way to get some outside support, to have another person in your corner. It's not some weak, shameful thing that only people who are really, really messed up do. People with more "mild" issues go to therapists all the time.
This article will talk about seeing a counselor one on one, in the way most people think of when they hear the word "therapy". In another article I talk about group therapy, which can be helpful for its own reasons.
(Quick note: In this article I use counselor/counseling and therapist/therapy interchangeably.)
What a therapist can offer you
It's beyond the scope of this piece to cover every aspect of what therapy involves, but I'll try to break down how it could benefit someone. Not all of these will necessarily apply to a person going to see a counselor about shyness or social issues, but I'll cover them anyway. Each therapist has their own style, but some of the core things counseling can provide are:
Strategies, tools, techniques, etc.
Some readers may find it odd that I'm putting this point first. Some sources go out of their way to emphasize that counseling is about so much more than some authority telling you what to do. It's true that it's not always appropriate or useful for a therapist to give a client direct advice. However, there are many cases where counseling is helpful because it provides a client with useful information they wouldn't otherwise know. A counselor could teach a stressed out student how to calm themselves through breathing and relaxation exercises. They could help a couple improve their relationship by teaching them better strategies to resolve disagreements. In some cases a counselors's teachings could take the form of a structured multi-session program. Like a cognitive behavioral therapist could help an anxious client face their fear of riding in elevators over a period of several months, through education about how to combat anxious thinking, followed by real world exposure exercises.
I think this benefit is particularly applicable to social issues since helping someone work through them often involves providing practical suggestions (e.g., teaching communication skills or ways of dealing with shyness and inhibitions). Of course there are going to be times where a client with social struggles will need other things.
It doesn't always seem like it would be that big a deal, but just having someone listen to you can be very helpful in and of itself. It often just feels good to get stuff off your chest. If something is bothering you, simply saying it out loud can take some of its power away.
Listening is also healing when it allows someone to feel heard and understood, and able to work through their emotions on their own time. Sometimes that's all a client needs, not for the therapist to throw two dozen strategies and suggestions at them. For example, a man may feel genuinely depressed and bereaved because his pet rabbit of eight years died. Not only that, but he feels dismissed and frustrated because his friends and family don't see what's so upsetting about it. He doesn't need any advice or insights into his behavior. He just needs someone to listen to him and share his feelings with. He also needs someone to show they know how hard it is for him, that they get what he's going through, and that they think he's having perfectly valid reaction to the death of a longtime pet.
Listening in a way to allow you learn about yourself and figure things out on your own
Counselors often act as sounding boards. The client has the answers within them. They just need someone to bounce their thoughts and ideas off. For example, a young woman may start counseling because she has a tendency to always sabotage herself just as she's about to succeed. If she can think out loud about the issue enough she'll be able to arrive at some insights about why she acts that way. Without spoon feeding anyone, a therapist can help this process along by asking clarifying questions or by making observations that may cause the client to look at their situation from a new perspective.
Why therapists make good listeners
Aside a quick aside, here are some reasons counselors are well suited for listening:
- It's their role to be a good listener and give you their undivided attention for the time you're together. The session is all about helping you. They're not checking their phone while you talk to them. They're not going to get bored or uncomfortable and change the topic after three minutes. They're not going to cut you off and offer you some generic platitudes.
- Therapists are accepting and non-judgmental. Even if you've done things you feel are really bad or embarrassing, they have an understanding of why you, and other people, would act the way you did. They don't hold your actions against you.
- They're someone you can talk to confidentially. Many people have issues they don't want to share with their friends or family. Counselors are ethically bound to keep everything their clients say confidential (the only exceptions are when a client makes statements which suggest they're an imminent danger to themselves or others, or they know of a child or other dependent that's at risk). Anything else, no matter how sensitive or shameful it may be to the client, is going to be kept private.
- A therapist is a third party that's totally disconnected from the rest of your life. Clients often feel they can't go to their friends and family about certain issues, because those people have biases or preconceived notions that get in the way of their being supportive and helpful. Like, if someone is having trouble with one of their friends, they may be reluctant to go to the rest of their social circle, who know that person as well. If they go to their mom, she may just blurt out something like, "Well it's probably because you're so stubborn all the time!"
Knowledge and feedback about yourself
This benefit can come about as a side effect of the three points above, or the counselor may more straightforwardly point something out to you. Self-awareness and self-knowledge can be very powerful. You can't really correct a lot of problems if you have a huge blind spot about what your motivations are, or how you come across to other people.
If a therapist gives you feedback it may not necessarily be negative either. Like they may tell you your conversation skills are actually solid, and not bumbling and awkward like you feel they are. If they have to tell you something that may be a bit harder to hear, they'll still do it, but will try to phrase it in the most helpful and sensitive way possible.
A way to understand your seemingly illogical, self-sabotaging behavior patterns
Sometimes we repeatedly do things we know don't make sense and aren't good for us, but we can't seem to stop despite our best efforts. Someone may keep eating a lot of junk food, even though they know it's unhealthy and making them put on too much weight. They have a string of failed diets behind them. They've tried to self-analyze why they're acting this way, but come up blank. There's often an unconscious motivation driving seemingly irrational, self-destructive behavior, and a therapist can help you unearth it. For example, a client may discover they overeat because their entire family is heavy, and deep down they fear they'll be rejected by them if they lose weight. There's a popular idea that exploring the unconscious in therapy is a drawn out, meandering process, but that's not always the case.
A way to process traumatic experiences, especially ones you can't work through on your own
Many personal problems and mental health issues stem from unresolved trauma. That could be to major traumas, like growing up with violent parents, to "lighter" but still scarring events, like being picked on in school or embarrassed by a teacher. Without going into too much theory, the upsetting feelings around these old experiences can get "frozen" in our minds. If a situation in the present day reminds us of a past trauma we can be hit with the emotions and beliefs we felt back when it originally happened. For example, a look of mild annoyance from a friend may remind someone of their abusive father, and before they know it they're flooded with anxiety and worry they're going to be angrily berated. They may not be aware this is happening under the hood, and just think they have a bad case of social anxiety that revolves around an "irrational" fear of bothering people.
Processing a trauma means working through those stuck painful emotions in a healthy way, so they lose their power. The memory of the event takes on more of that flat, "dry fact" quality that most memories have. It can be very difficult to process more-severe traumas on your own, as it's easy to become too upset and emotionally spiral. Specialized trauma therapists have techniques to help you process your traumas in a way that's as safe, manageable, and comfortable as possible.
A microcosm of your social relationships
Sometimes how a client acts with their therapist gives a fairly accurate reflection of how their relationships are with other people. The counselor can tune into this information, get a sense of what the client's issues are, and then be able to help them. For example, someone with a tendency to push others away in order to pre-emptively protect themselves from rejection may pick a petty fight with their counselor. Whenever they do something like this in their day to day life it may cost them a friendship. However, a therapist who's aware of the underlying dynamic will try to make things go differently. Rather than getting mad, they can bring up what's going on with the client, and hopefully do some productive work on the issue.
People are more likely to work on their problems when they have someone they have to report back to. If a client is paying for each session that can also be an incentive to get the most from their money. If a client is really ambivalent about changing, the accountability factor won't magically make them motivated. However, if someone is ready to start working on themselves, and seeing a counselor is one aspect of that, feeling accountable can give them that much more of a push in the right direction.
A way to spread around the difficulty of supporting you
Most people's friends and family mean well, but if you're going through a particularly tough time, and have a big need for support, it can wear them down after a while. It's not that your typical person's loved ones are selfish and heartless. It's just that even the most supportive person can only do so much. If you add a counselor to the mix it can take some of the load off of everyone else's shoulders, which will ultimately free them up to be there for you more.
Practical assistance and access to other resources
If it's relevant, a counselor can sometimes help a client with more practical matters. A few quick examples: They could refer someone with financial difficulties to a credit counselor, or an agency that could set them up in subsidized housing. They could point an unemployed client to a job search service. They could arrange to have a student with test anxiety receive special accommodations from their school during exam time.
A possible diagnosis
Not every type of therapist is able to diagnose their clients. However, if they can't do it themselves, they do have the option of referring them to someone who can. I realize this is a somewhat contentious topic. Not everyone who sees a therapist has a diagnosable mental health condition. Of those who do, they won't all be thrilled at the idea of having a potentially stigmatizing label slapped on them. However, there are cases where people are relieved to receive a diagnosis. It provides an explanation for their struggles, and gives them direction about where to go next.
For example, a man in his late thirties may have stalled out in his career because he can never seem to finish his projects. After beating himself up for years for being so lazy and disorganized, it could take a huge weight off his shoulders to find out he has ADHD. After years of dealing with bouts of depression mixed with periods of self-destructive spending binges, someone may be happy to learn their behavior is due to Bipolar Disorder, not because they're "crazy". In the social realm the same thing can happen if someone is diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. It provides so much clarity about why they find socializing so hard. It's not that they're some hopelessly awkward weirdo. They have a brain that works differently, and difficulty with aspects of socializing is one part of that.
Medication, if appropriate
Again, not every type of counselor can prescribe medication, but they can always make a referral. I realize this topic is even more controversial than the last one. Not everyone who goes to counseling will need to be put on some sort of drug. Of the clients who could theoretically benefit from it, it's their choice about whether to take anything. I know there are cases where clients are inappropriately medicated, or they try something and the side effects aren't worth it. However, just like with the last point, there are also people who will tell you getting a prescription is what made all the difference for them. Somone with ADHD may be shocked at how much they can focus and get their work done once they hit on the right type of medication and dosage. An individual with Bipolar Disorder may see their moods stabilize, and be able to live a much more contented, predictable life. A woman with fairly entrenched depression may find that temporarily going on an anti-depressant brings her mood up enough that she can start getting benefits out of counseling.
Does therapy work?
Counseling absolutely works for many people. Any counselor can point to clients they've worked with who clearly improved. Studies also back up that conclusion. There are some conditions that make counseling most effective though:
- The main one is that the person seeking counseling has to be motivated to address their issues and willing to put in the work to make changes. It's not a perfect analogy, but seeing a therapist is a bit like going to a personal trainer. The trainer can help quite a bit, but in the end you're the one who still has to eat right and do the push ups. If someone sees a trainer once a month, but has horrible eating and exercise habits the rest of the time, it's not really fair if they say, "Personal trainers don't work."
- Similarly, a counselor can only be truly effective if they have a complete picture of what the client is dealing with. For example, if someone sees a therapist because of their marriage troubles, but doesn't disclose that they also have a serious cocaine addiction, there's only so much that's going to get done.
- The issues the client is going to the therapist for are a factor as well. Some problems are more amenable to counseling than others. Luckily, social skills issues are quite treatable. So are the mood problems that sometimes accompany them.
- The fit between the client and therapist plays a role. Just as not every person gets along with everyone else, not every client and counselor are going to be a perfect match for each other. Fortunately, it's usually easy to switch therapists if you feel the relationship isn't productive. Counselors know this happens sometimes, and don't take it personally if a client feels they could be better served elsewhere. If anything, they'll be happy to know their client now has a better chance of getting the help they need.
- Certain types of people tend to benefit more from therapy. If you're introspective, analytical, in touch with your emotions, articulate, and curious about yourself, you'll have an easier time of things. Again, luckily many people with social skills issues fit this description.
- Therapy works best when the client's life is pretty stable. It's hard to devote time to dealing with your psychological issues when you're broke, hungry, just got fired, about to get kicked out of your apartment, and awaiting a court date. It's not that progress is impossible, but it will obviously be hindered.
Reasons someone might be wary about attending therapy
Not everyone thinks therapy is for them. They may try to work through their issues by themselves, or by talking to family and friends. I don't think this is any better or worse than seeing a professional. To each their own. Some people are reluctant to see a counselor because they have fears and misconceptions about what the therapy process is like, or because of inaccurate beliefs they have about therapists as individuals. I cover that in these two articles:
Accessing a therapist affordably
Seeing a counselor can be pricey. If money's tight for you there are many options for seeing one more cheaply:
- If you're in university or college your school may offer free mental health services to their students.
- Some counselors, or mental health agencies that offer therapy, will adjust their hourly rate based on your income. Some agencies will even fully subsidize the cost of counseling if your income is very low.
- Your job's employee assistance plan may cover seeing a therapist. If you're younger you might be covered under a parent's plan.
- In some countries, if you're taking part in certain social programs (e.g., disability support, income assistance), they may also cover some of the cost of counseling.
- Depending on your country's healthcare system, seeing certain types of counselors may be covered.