The New Normal

The New Normal June 21, 2013

Guest Post by Cristen Wathen

“The only normal people are the ones you don’t know very well.”

Alfred Adler

I’m a licensed counselor who has worked with a variety of clients over the past five years on issues from career development to sexual abuse to anxiety to spiritual confusion. Before I go out to greet each new client, I like to take a moment to honor the fact that the person I’m about to meet has decided to invite me into his life, to let me see his vulnerabilities, and to share with me his hopes, dreams, wounds, fears, and anxieties. What a responsibility and privilege that I take extremely seriously. And no, my mind is not on how I can analyze and diagnose said client and reduce them to nothing more that a problem saturated story with a treatment plan. Actually, my focus is on the opposite — how brave it is for that person to take initiative in taking good care of themselves, and what a “normal” and healthy behavior that person is displaying by coming in. And yes …”normal” is relative … and as a counselor and as a person I truly believe the above quote. “Normal” depends on our experience and our perspective and often our striving to live “normally” is a quest that causes the anxiety that brings us to counseling in the first place. What a frustrating paradox.

It is one of my life goals as an advocate, counselor, and educator to work to share the message that counseling is for “normal” people. Basically, counseling is a relationship based on support and trust with a goal of finding helpful ways for growth and change. It is for “normal” people (aka everyone) because just as the quote above reflects — we all have to deal with the side effects of being human and living life in an imperfect world. We each deal with our human existence in our own “normal” way…which may or may not seem “normal” to everyone else.

It might be helpful to remember that counselors are “normal” as well. We counselors (and psychologists, social workers, etc.) have had bad relationships, bad hair days, and have struggled with our own self-esteem and anxieties. Ethically obligated and often self-motivated to continue in the process of personal self-growth, many times counselors have actually been through the process we are asking you as a client to go through in our office. We’ve been the “not normal” ones sitting on the couch. I’ve been to counseling several times throughout my life working with wonderful counselors that supported me to change both personally and professionally. It was hard work.  I cried. I laughed. I was scared. I was vulnerable. I thought I wasn’t normal. Then I realized no one is normal. And that I am normal because I am not “normal.” I learned (and now I teach!) in my training program, that if I don’t take care of myself as a person and counselor, that I won’t be effective in helping anyone to learn to take care of themselves.

As a counselor, I hold a lot of power in the words I use, interactions I have, and responses I give with and to others. One statement or assumption I make can lead to a stall in the therapeutic process — especially (as I’ve learned) in the instance of spiritual or moral topics. In my experience, spirituality comes up frequently as a focus in counseling — with both positive or negative or even neutral views from clients. I’ve learned to be aware of my personal values and separate them from the values of others in respect of the clients who have given me their trust and to whom I often represent power and influence. Not only are counselors “normal” people, oftentimes, we learn as much from our clients as our clients do from us. Clients with spiritual backgrounds and/or beliefs that differ from my personal ones challenge me to continue to grow and recognize that others see the world and have different experiences with God/Faith/Spirituality than I have. I mean, when someone has been abused by their father weekly for fifteen years, I believe they have a right to question God and be angry regarding their experience. When someone deals with sexual dysfunction or depression or loses a parent, it brings up spiritual questions, thoughts, and feelings that are important to explore.

Throughout working with different clients, I’ve gotten angry with God as well.  I remember thinking “Seriously, God. Can this person take much more?” Much of my experience is working with children and adults who have been sexually abused. I remember having angry emotional reactions at church when I would hear (and still hear) particular phrases regarding God’s will or narrow perspectives on pain, suffering, and acceptance being spewed from the pulpit nonchalantly and without thought to the effect it might have on individuals with various experiences. I remember working with my first gay client, seeing their struggle and pain, and saying to God… “I’m not sure I can understand why this person would “choose” to be gay… I mean, throw me a bone here, God…” Throughout my experience as a counselor I have had the joys of having amazing friends, clients, and colleagues that are Wiccan, Buddhist, Latter Day Saint/Mormon, Atheistic, and Agnostic AND they have been some of the BEST friends, MOST changed clients, and MOST amazing people in my life- and they didn’t grow up as a “normal” Baptist like I did.

It is sad that those who are seen as “not normal” (whatever that means) often only have counselors to go to find the acceptance, support, and unconditional positive regard they need in life. Shouldn’t the church be a refuge for a person considered “not normal” by others? What if we, as the church, opened ourselves up to what we can learn from others and be willing to question God regarding our “normal Christian perspective” and challenge our understanding of what is “normal?” God can take it- and He will support us as we struggle in the process. Being willing to struggle, flounder, and shift my foundation has made me a better, kinder, and more understanding person, Christian, and counselor.  Also, I have grown deeper in my faith in God by being able to be angry with him, be changed by my experiences and new insights in relationship with Him, and I find Him always there when there is so much shifting and thinking going on inside my brain, that I’m sure I will explode and never understand how to define my newfound “normal.” I sure don’t have it all figured out, but I can say for me what I believe and feel without placing those thoughts and feelings on others both in my counseling world and in my personal life. Who am I to say what is “normal?”

Once I was asked what counseling theory that I thought Jesus would use by a very prominent counselor in our field. I’m not sure what his intentions were, but it sure got me thinking about how I integrate my faith with my professional life. I’m not sure if Cognitive Behavioral or Humanistic theory was more Jesus’ style…(any guesses? It is kind of a fun question for counselors like me)… however, I sense that He would listen to others’ stories, meet them where they are, be honest with them, love them, and support them in their growth and development. No wonder they call Him the Wonderful Counselor!  Dang it… I’ll never be that good!  Come see me anyway. Take a moment today to celebrate that you are normal in your “abnormalities” and allow the space for yourself to listen to another’s perspective and experience in your spiritual walk today. And go see a counselor — they really aren’t that scary!

Dr. Cristen Wathen is an Assistant Professor of Counseling at Montana State University,(Bozeman, MT), in the Health and Human Development Department.  She is a licensed professional counselor in Idaho and a Nationally Certified Counselor.  Cristen earned her Ph.D. from Idaho State University in Counselor Education and Counseling, her Master’s degree in Community Counseling from Baylor University in Waco, TX, and her BA in Biblical Studies and History from Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, AR.  She loves dance, yoga, mindfulness, the Razorbacks, and working with clients on spiritual issues.  She is married to Christopher Wathen and they are southern implants to the West who are getting used to snow, love to travel, camp, and explore beautiful places. Professionally, Cristen has experience training and supervising counselors, writing and presenting in her field, and working with sexual abuse survivors, college students, and a wide variety of other clients.  She is lucky enough to be irrevrin’s sister-in-law and is honored to be asked to write a post in this excellent blog. 

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