Lessons from Counseling


January 6, 2016 was the first day I returned to the university’s counseling center. I was there once before last summer, but those sessions ended quickly after a month because the counselor I was seeing was looking for another job.

In addition to one-on-one counseling, I had tried one session of group psychotherapy, but I was immediately turned off by the smug and cold-faced counselors and how unreal it was to be with a group of people you couldn’t interact with outside of the group. The goal of the counseling was to learn how to relate to and help each other. But I found it difficult for us to counsel each other. That was my impression when I tried to help another guy in the group. I understand that I can’t expect myself to be right every time, but being corrected by the counselor made me not want to say anything more. If we said the “wrong” thing, we had the extra task of filtering what one person said versus what the counselor said in response to that in order to make sure we remember the right thing. And sometimes the topics we talked about didn’t seem to apply to me, which is is what made me doubt the effectiveness of a group session most of all. Again, I only attended one session so my opinions have to be taken with that in mind.

At the end of that month, I decided to close my file because those experiences didn’t seem helpful. I opened it up again in January however. I can’t articulate what led me to come back besides some feeling that something was wrong and that I was terribly unhappy.


I had a total of 16 sessions with new counselor, which I’m thankful for because students usually only get 10. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, he has helped me immensely. At our first session, I wanted to be clear about what I could expect to take with me from these sessions. This being my second time of trying counseling, I imagined that maybe I needed something to focus on or work towards during my time there so I’d be less likely to walk away unsatisfied. He said that his goal was to help me through my struggles by helping me to reframe the way I see people and situations – not necessarily to pinpoint one “correct” perspective, but to allow me to reach that conclusion myself after reviewing all the possibilities. I interpreted what he said to mean I could learn strategies to help support myself.

After my time with him, there were several discussions we had that have resonated with me. It’s important to note that these lessons apply to my own struggles, namely with depression and how that affects my view of myself and others, but other people may reach some understanding through what I’ve taken away.

Understanding Yourself

There is a balance between wanting to feel like your struggle has been heard while also wanting someone to help us come up with a solution.

Do we want advice or do we want to vent? Knowing which it is helps us to seek the support we need and to understand when maybe others are trying to help but just aren’t offering the kind of support we need at the moment.

Value-driven behavior means we make decisions on what we value.

Sometime we end up in a situation where we can’t do two things at once. For example, if family is a value, we may decide to spend time with a family member who is only in town briefly over spending time with friends who we typically see. It doesn’t mean that we don’t value spending time with friends. It’s just that we valued one thing over another at the moment (in this case, spending time with our family).

These decisions sometimes are difficult because we fear that when we choose one thing, we miss out on some other opportunity, and that’s true. But we make decisions based on our priorities – based on what we determine is worth it.

You offer different things that another person doesn’t.

Comparisons are hard to avoid. It’s easy to think of yourself in terms of the qualities you don’t have, especially when you see others that do have them succeed. But we all have a set of characteristics, values, and strengths that represent who we are, such that deviating from them would leave us with that unsettling feeling of trying to be something we aren’t. We can still try to do things that others may be better at it, and maybe we become just as good at them if not better, but things we take interest in, excel at, or just are in terms of our personality help to set us apart from each other.

Avoid making assumptions.

There is a popular Aesop’s fable that talks about a lesson learned from “sour grapes.” A fox sees a bushel of grapes high up in a tree. The fox tries to climb up the tree, but after multiple failed attempts, he walks away telling himself the grapes must have been sour. The point of the story is that he would never know if they were actually sour or not.

My counselor brought up this story to me because I was trying to convince myself about things that I didn’t fully have an answer for. I have a habit of trying to be a mind reader, and sometimes it causes me unnecessary stress to jump to conclusions without considering other possibilities.

Understanding Others

People will always have their differences.

We all come from different cultures, upbringings, and lived experiences. When we enter a space (for example, a university) with people who come from different backgrounds than us, such as one person coming from a family that spoke loudly all the time vs. someone from a quiet and reserved family, there is a gap between us. In that space we may succeed in narrowing that gap by being open to each others’ differences and adapting. However, there may always be differences between us despite attempts to understand each other better.

How will another person know what you want if you don’t approach them about it?

If we tell someone what our need is and approach them to see if they will meet it, we at least get an answer. That’s useful information even if it’s an answer we don’t want to hear because don’t have to keep guessing at where they are really coming from or have to try to read their intentions.

Expectations differ.

Conflicts often happen as a result of misaligned expectations. Many of us have heard about the five love languages (Words of Affirmation, Quality Time, Receiving Gifts, Acts of Service, and Physical Touch). We have preferences for different languages and it’s inevitable that they may not match up. I can get upset that others didn’t spend time with me but perhaps their gift was their way of showing care.

People may serve a purpose in our lives at that particular season of life.

We know who are closest friends are. There are many others that we interact with besides them, however. We have colleagues, acquaintances, and strangers we meet in passing (e.g., cashier at a coffee shop, person on the bus, our counselor). These people hold a role in our lives big and small. It’s easy to think that time spent without our loved ones is less meaningful, but what about enjoying the experience because at the present it’s worthwhile – without any stipulations of the future (e.g., “I won’t talk to this person in a year” or “I’ll never see this person again”) or a need to review their importance in your life?


Understanding Depression

I will be posting a more comprehensive resource about depression that is supported by data soon. The majority of these reflections involve my personal experience of depression and so this is in no way meant to replace the advice of a professional.

My counselor described depression to me in a perfect way. Depression is a fog that clouds the way those affected by it see things. When severe enough, it is obvious how accurate this ‘filter’ idea is. Maybe we say hi to someone and they don’t say anything back and we think they hate us. Maybe you hear about an event that happened and conclude that your presence there was unwanted, or that there’s something wrong with you. Maybe you make a mistake at work and then start believing your boss thinks you are just completely incompetent.

Depression is abnormal and for me it has distorted the way I see and interpret situations. The worst parts about having depression are (1) feeling like you can’t find a way to be happy, although you desperately want to, and (2) also seeing how your sense of hopelessness and despair invades your relationships with others and your ability to think, work, and live well. My belief is that when depression becomes severe enough, it is hard to hide it from those closest to us. So many things can be affected: sleep, concentration, appetite, daily activities, enjoyment of interests, and time with others. That basically sums up life and how we function. When depression is bad, you’re bound to slip, at least in my opinion.

My counselor also described depression like a monster on our shoulder. Of course, we aren’t literally hearing any voices, but conceptually, depression is like a monster in the way that it whispers these lies and negative thoughts. My counselor encouraged me to recognize these patterns before I was susceptible to believing something untrue. Basically, is this the depression talking or is this actually what you think?

The main way I have coped with depression is with food. That admission sounds so common that it seems like nothing. Like that it’s just comfort eating, eating under stress, or eating to take the mind off of things or to fill the time.

This coping method of eating (or in this case, eating too much) was not something minor for me.I first broke down during a counseling session when I pictured myself stuffing my face with fast food all alone in my apartment. I was thinking of a couple of things when this picture was in my mind: (1) I’m pathetic; (2) I’m alone; (3) This is self-sabotage, and that I’m doing it to prove that I’m right – I’m a loser.

During that moment in front of my counselor I felt like I couldn’t pick up the pieces of the mess that I was. I had felt like I held little value, and that I was a weak person.

My counselor calmly talked to me and reminded me of the value I do have even at such a seemingly low point of my life. I was fighting him on it in my mind, not convinced that I’m anything but worthless. He told me though that maybe that picture of myself eating all that food alone, however painful to picture it, is the best I can do right now, that it’s not where I want to be but where I am. And that I was there in that room with him, taking the steps and making the effort to get better. I was reaching out for support, and asking for help. I was doing something and I was trying.

Those reflections are what I want to share with someone who is trying to understand depression and how it affects their life. With all those difficulties that we face it is easy to lose sight of the effort we are putting in to help ourselves. Every day I am trying not to be hard on myself and to appreciate whatever steps forward I am taking.


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