For the past year, I’ve been studying in the Clinical Mental Health Counseling graduate program at Franciscan University of Steubenville. More recently, my fellow students and I have been exploring what it means to be a Catholic Pastoral Counselor. A particularly holistic flavor of the profession, Catholic Pastoral Counseling uses the truth of the Catholic faith as well as evidence-based psychological techniques to help and heal every level of the human person: their body, their soul, and their mind.
Through my studies, I’ve encountered 5 basic truths that I think apply to every human being, everywhere. These points are invaluable to pastoral counselors, so it’s my hope that they’ll be helpful to you too.
Everyone’s Crazy (or Wounded, or Struggle-Bus’n)
Whatever phrase you prefer, you have to realize that everyone is suffering. A good pastoral counselor realizes that suffering is not a matter of how much or how little, because pain isn’t quantifiable. We’re all struggling and hurting in our own way. Whether your struggle is an addiction, a childhood wound, a tense relationship, or even some type of life crisis, you have to realize that you’re not alone: everyone else is struggling too. The only way to improve our situations is to reach outside of ourselves in active empathy for what everybody else is going through. As Saint Vincent de Paul once wrote, “we should strive to keep our hearts open to the sufferings and wretchedness of other people, and pray continually that God may grant us that spirit of compassion which is truly the spirit of God.”
We Need to Make Sure to Put Others First
Speaking of keeping our hearts open, no post on the human experience would be complete without some mention of our fundamental need for connection. Pope John Paul II once said that, “[Man realizes his essence] only be existing ‘with someone’ – and even more deeply and completely – by existing ‘for someone.’” How right he was! Humans are social creatures. As such, we require community and intimacy with others in order to fully thrive. That is oftentimes why we find ourselves feeling depressed, frustrated, or stuck; we don’t have strong or healthy enough connections with others! Although a huge part of the pastoral counselor’s job is helping people make these connections, the best way to make them is simply to turn our hearts outwards towards the service of others. If we can successfully follow Pope John Paul II’s urging and live our lives for others, the love we need will grow all around us.
…But Make Ourselves a Priority Too
At the same time, it’s worth noting that we should never take care of others so much that we completely deplete ourselves. Sometimes, people think that putting others first means ignoring our own needs; but this is simply not the case! After all, how are we supposed to love and serve others properly – making the connections that we need to thrive – if we’re not taking proper care of ourselves? Let us remember that our Lord Jesus often had to separate himself from the crowd, venturing off to some quiet space in order to rest and rejuvenate. Likewise, a good pastoral counselor knows to advise what we call “self care”: an unselfish type of personal care in which we care for ourselves so that we might better care for others. And keep in mind that self care can and perhaps should be enjoyable. Be aware of your own needs, and be willing to take some personal time to pray, relax, or engage in a favorite hobby. As St. Thomas Aquinas once wrote, “Well-ordered self-love is right and natural,” and furthermore, “Sorrow can be alleviated by good sleep, a bath and a glass of wine.”
We Shouldn’t be Afraid to Ask for or Accept Help
You may have noticed by now that these points build on one another, and this is no different. After all, relying on one another requires a recognition that we’re all suffering; it turns us outwards towards others; and it ensures that we are taken care of.
A pastoral counselor realizes that no situation can improve until a person is ready to ask for and receive help from others, and we’d be wise to realize this in our own lives. After all, how often do those we love reject our help because they refuse to see a problem or want to fix the problem on their own? How often do we reject others help out of some misguided sense of pride? Let us remember that even Jesus allowed himself to be helped by Simon of Cyrene on the way of the cross. Sometimes, the bravest thing is not to go it alone, but to let others into our journey.
Nobody’s a Lost Cause
The most important point I’ve learned, though, is this: that no one is beyond help or too far gone. As you read the other points in this post, certain negative thoughts might be going through your head. “Maybe everyone’s wounded,” you think, “but I’m worse off than a lot of people are”; or maybe, “even if I did seek out others, nobody would want to help me”. Whatever lie you’re telling yourself, stop it! Nobody is a lost cause. A well-trained pastoral counselor realizes that no matter how far a person’s fallen and no matter how deeply a person has been hurt, there is always hope for that person.
Things can always get better. A pastoral counselor’s whole job, in fact, is helping to ensure that things do get better. But this job doesn’t just belong to the pastoral counselor; it’s a job for all of us! All of us – as friends, as family, as Christians – are put on this earth to help others get to where they’re meant to be: to better lives, better relationships, and ultimately, heaven itself! So understand that no matter how bad things may seem, and no matter how much you may feel you’ve screwed up, there is always hope for you! Just consider these words from Pope John XXIII:
“Consult not your fears but your hopes and your dreams. Think not about your frustrations, but about your unfulfilled potential. Concern yourself not with what you tried and failed in, but with what it is still possible for you to do”