This episode is missing some of the normal bells and whistles that you are used to. No intro music. No disclaimers or fancy editing. I am currently out of town and my remote desktop failed me, so I don’t have access to my normal episode template.
In this episode, I take one really good listener question about whether it’s strange to feel upset about their counselor dying and what they can do about comparing future counselors to their last one, since it was a good experience for them.
A year ago this month, I started seeing a psychiatrist and counselor for my bipolar disorder and anxiety. During one of my first couple appointments my counselor suggested that I listen to a podcast when having anxiety. Of course, I thought that was lame and didn’t do it. Then I finally gave in and turned on a podcast (yours) just to say I tried it…So this is of course how I found your podcast and I have been listening to you since last year.
Today I had an appointment set up with my counselor. (This month would be a year that I started seeing her). Usually, on Monday evenings she shoots me a confirmation text and I reply yes for my appointment. She didn’t do that yesterday, which is very unlike her. So I messaged her this morning asking if my appointment was today or next week, I thought I got the date wrong. I didn’t hear back. I went ahead and showed up to the office and sat in the parking lot since I had gotten there 20 minutes early. I usually see her walking into the office 10 mins before my appointment, and I didn’t see her. I walked into the building, get to her office and there’s a sign saying her office is now closed and two phone numbers of other councilors. My anxiety immediately shot thru the roof because she is the only councilor that I have been able to bond with and never stopped seeing after a month. I went to the car and got online trying to figure out what was going on. I thought her office got shut down, and I hadn’t gotten informed by anyone. That’s when I found her obituary online. She passed away on July 7th. I was immediately in tears and upset.
Facebook message: Is it odd to be upset about this?
This really sucks and it’s allowed to suck. I have had this experience a few times, but in reverse. In my line of work, I don’t always get to know what happens to my clients. Especially in my testing practice where I deal with older individuals and people with sometimes severe illnesses, occasionally someone will die and I need to do exactly what you did to figure it out.
It’s not odd to feel like this!
So I first just want to validate your feelings. It makes so much sense that this has really rocked you. Even though this isn’t a family member or a close personal friend, this IS someone that you have bonded with and put your trust in. It sounds like that has characteristically been pretty difficult for you, so being able to do that with her was a big deal. It could also be that you were able to create a relationship with her and build trust that you were never able to find in your family, which is extremely special and one of the reasons that therapy can actually work. You get to use it as a platform to correct the poor emotional experiences that you may have had from other people in your life.
Any person, anxiety or not, is going to have a difficult time coping when someone that they have built a close connection with passes away unexpectedly. For someone like you that does struggle with anxiety, the unexpected nature of it is even harder because it might seem like a confirmation of your fears. As if the universe is trying to tell you “see – you shouldn’t get attached to people because they will just end up leaving you.”
That’s bullshit. That line of thinking and countless other lines of thinking that your anxious brain is trying to sell you are just lies.
I talked about this recently in another podcast about a therapist moving away, but even though you have lost this person that you worked really well with, you have been able to prove to yourself that you are capable of making that bond and actually start to see progress in your mental health. It sounds like you went through a few counselors to figure that out, so I think it’s amazing that you stayed open to the possibility and kept trying. Essentially you challenged the negative voice in your head that probably told you that nobody would be able to help, that psychiatry just isn’t for you, or that therapy is useless. You essentially did an experiment to say “alright – that might be true, but let me try a little more first”. And that experiment led you to this good situation that you were in.
All of this is to say that even though your counselor is gone now, the time that you worked together serves as a proof of concept. You are able to advocate for yourself and keep pushing forward until you find the resources you need. You are able to break down walls that have probably been there for quite some time and let the right person in. You can lower your defenses and learn to trust that someone else has your best interests at heart and isn’t going to take advantage of you. These are all very powerful things, and things that you weren’t sure were entirely possible before you had this experience.
The lessons are still with you
The lessons and realization from the counseling itself are also still with you. Those things don’t magically disappear when someone passes away. In therapy, often what happens is you tend to cover certain topics multiple times and the professional probably has a few unique ways of describing things that sit with you. They sort of become a voice in the back of your head in everyday life. For instance, some of my therapy clients probably hear my voice in their head saying things like “anxiety cannot harm you” or “avoid avoidance” as they are encountering roadblocks in everyday life.
In this way, your previous counselor is still with you. I’m not sure if that sounds cheesy, but it’s true. The impact and resonance of your relationship together still exists. You will continue to benefit from the work you did together and you will be able to find someone to trust again. It will not be the same. You will never have that same exact relationship. Just like in romantic relationships. After a breakup, you will probably find someone else. The relationship may be great, even better in a lot of ways, but it will inherently be different because it is with a different person.
So in moving forward, don’t doubt that you will be able to find someone to help you move forward, but don’t expect them to be the same, because they’re not.
Taking care of yourself
Now in terms of caring for yourself. You don’t need to feel weird about this being hard for you. This is a loss. Just like losing anyone in your life, you may have a grieving process that happens. That’s normal. Keep in mind, this isn’t like losing your dentist or chiropractor, which could also be difficult. This is losing someone who basically held a piece of you. If it’s painful, that’s okay. You may go through different stages. You probably already had some of the early stages like denial and shock, where you are fervently searching online to see if there is any possible way there is just another person with the same name. Triple checking to make sure you read the obituary properly etc. Then you get the strong emotions like sadness, anxiety, fear, hopelessness, etc.
It sounds like that’s where you are at right now and I would encourage you to not go through it alone. If you have any social supports in your life, talk with them about this. Process with them. Talk about how you feel in an honest way. Nothing you say or don’t say will change the fact that she’s gone, but it will change the way that this fact sits with you as you move forward.
It may be a good idea to also take some time to sit down with your journal and write down some of the key things that you want to remember from your time working together. While it’s fresh in your mind. Some of the important breakthroughs you may have had, any exercises that she taught you, and also what made her different from other counselors that you’ve tried, so you can get an idea about what you would like to see in your next one.
So overall, it is absolutely not weird for you to be upset about this. I would totally expect you to. Give yourself some time to adjust your expectations and don’t expect to just be “over” this immediately. What happened is terrible and your reaction to it is totally normal.
Facebook message: Follow up question
I would like to know what to do if I’m not comfortable with the next counselor because I’m comparing them to my old counselor. I don’t really intend to, but I know I’m going to.
This is also a really good question. It’s totally natural to compare your next counselor to your previous one. In this case, I think some of that can be healthy. As you said, you have gone through a few counselors that did not do the trick for you. Expectations and the relationship that you build with your therapist play a huge role in whether you are able to make any progress and change.
So now you know a few of the elements that make therapy more successful for you. Maybe it has to do with the age or gender of the therapist. Maybe it has to do with whether they are more active or passive in session. Maybe it has to do with the actual approaches that they use. Whatever the case if for you, this is important knowledge that you can take with you on your search for your next counselor.
As I said before, you’re not going to be able to find someone who is exactly the same, and maybe you shouldn’t. It might be helpful to have someone that has a slightly different perspective or approach so that you aren’t just retreading old ground. BUT now that you have proven to yourself that you can make progress with someone, you are going to be able to trust your gut a little better and more efficiently determine whether someone is a good fit for you or not.
You are allowed to compare a new counselor to your old counselor and at the same time recognize the ways in which they are different that could be beneficial to you. What I would say is you can hold them to the standard of quality and care that you learned to expect from your former counselor, but don’t expect them to be the same.
And if you find that you are not comfortable with your new counselor after giving them a few sessions, you can switch! You’ve gone through this process before. You are the consumer and you are allowed to switch providers if you are not satisfied. That is something that we are used to. We want there to be a good match too. So don’t feel guilty about that and if you feel discouraged, just realize that you’ve been discouraged before and have been able to push through and find someone that was a great fit.
So thank you for your great questions. Again, I’m sorry that all of this happened in the first place. You aren’t crazy. You aren’t dramatic. You will be able to find someone to work with again in the future, but it might be a little tough for the immediate future. You got this.
This episode of Hardcore Self Help is sponsored by BetterHelp.
A lot of you are in a spot where you are struggling with your happiness, managing strong feelings, or anxiety that is preventing you from living a comfortable life and reaching your goals. BetterHelp is an online therapy platform that provides affordable and convenient access to professional counseling with a licensed psychologist. Right now BetterHelp are offering listeners 10% off their first month – just visit betterhelp.com/duff.
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