Since starting my personal development journey around 2015, I sought to avoid any need for professional mental health assistance. Standing on my own two feet, sorting through my own mental baggage on the meditation cushion, in my personal journal, and on my blog motivated me away from seeking professional help – as if the former techniques are mutually exclusive substitutes.
My parents and university guided me towards various therapists and mental health professionals since I was a teenager – experiences that I often found unhelpful at best or harmful at worst.
I’m not ungrateful, angry, nor full of ill will. I believe they sincerely tried to help me. But I do feel like I made more progress towards mental maturity and well-being in the gym, classroom, and the workplace than I ever did in a therapist’s office. Learning the discipline to recognize and persist through physical or psychological discomfort as well as provide meaningful contributions to others have given me the inner peace and self-esteem to ascend to a more cheerful and stable disposition over the last six years.
And after living in Korea for two years, transferring into a more challenging work environment, and finding my stride in teaching Korean English teacher-trainees, I felt like I had arrived.
How could I be so foolish?
I should have known better.
Before departing for Korea, I spent countless hours in public libraries around Sacramento County poring over articles and books related to positive psychology – the study of human flourishing.
Positive psychology serves as a reaction against clinical psychology’s pathology-focused framework, revolving its inquiry around similar questions.
“What genetic, environmental, and habitual factors contribute to well-being and extraordinary psychological functioning?”
“How can people cultivate satisfying, meaningful lives?”
Neither branch of psychology (positive or clinical) is more or less important than the other. In fact, they seem to work well together. Individuals cannot live maximally fulfilling lives when mental health conditions and psychological hangups go unaddressed. And some people who struggle with adverse mental health could stand to improve by implementing elements of positive psychology.
It finally hit me while listening to episode after episode of the Jordan Harbinger Show – specifically the glut of sponsored ads for Better Help. In the ads, host Jordan and producer Jason often touted the benefits of working on their own mental health through online counseling.
“Wow,” I thought. “These guys are successful, at least relative to me. And they still focus on protecting their minds.”
Obviously, material and external success is far from protective against mental health problems. In fact, availability bias from the media would suggest that success and fame can exacerbate one’s preexisting psychological issues.
To be honest, I cannot speak to whether or not success in work or achieving one’s goals is beneficial or detrimental to one’s psychological functioning. I suppose the individualized nature of mental health suggests that it’s not predictive either way.
Regardless, cruising through classes, going out with new friends, and feeling satisfied with life was not a sign that my mental work was over. Far from it. The more I read about others’ wisdom and experience life for myself, the more I feel like one’s psychological and spiritual development never ends. There is no finish line.
And as December gloom descended like dark storm clouds, I realized I was dead wrong and in desperate need of some psychological support.
So for the past six months, I’ve sought refuge from the grind of daily life and the tricks and traps of my own mind in teletherapy. In Korea, it’s quite difficult to find affordable, English-speaking mental health services – especially down here in the more sparsely-populated Korean Deep South.
I didn’t want to pay an arm and a leg and sacrifice an entire weekend traveling to a larger city like Seoul or Busan just to make a therapy appointment.
But technology is a beautiful thing sometimes. Thanks to the growth of video chat apps as well websites like Better Help, people can find talk therapy almost anywhere in the world without breaking the bank – time differences permitting.
Because I speak with a therapist in the U.S., time differences mean I log in in for video sessions at either 7:00 A.M. or 10:00 P.M. Neither time confers convenience.
“7:00 A.M.? On a work day? What if you have a difficult conversation that leaves you drained? It will ruin your day.”
I have memories of leaving counseling sessions at the University of Kentucky feeling low, weak, and depressed. Eventually, I learned that such raw feelings often catalyzed healing and rebirth.
Whenever I was injured as a child, I applied a band-aid to stop the bleeding. But the next day, my mother would always tear the bandage away. It hurt. But…
“You have to expose the wound to the air for it to heal properly,” she would say.
So I’ve come to accept the raw, exposed feelings that come from counseling or feedback sessions as necessary to learn and grow – the pain of my ego screaming out in self-protection.
Because once my ego tires itself out, then the real work can begin.
“Fine, then. What about 10:00?”
“Man, I can barely keep my eyes open!”
“So be it. 7:00 it is.”
So I’ve dutifully logged in one morning per week for 50 minutes. At about $45 per session, it’s a worthwhile investment toward my own well-being and peace of mind.
My therapist has led me to some noteworthy insights since starting my teletherapy journey. For one, I seem to show some bipolar traits when I describe my day-to-day life.
To be fair, due to licensing laws, my therapist cannot give me any diagnoses – nor do I think my current mental functioning is worthy of a diagnosis. I am functional in my day-to-day life and only experience periodic (not chronic) distress as a result of my cresting, sinking, and cyclical mood states.
However, talking to a trained professional about such experiences provides me more awareness of my day-to-day moods. I’m getting better at identifying when I’m riding a high or when I’m falling into a low. And with such information, I can make informed choices in my daily life. For example, she suggests that skipping meals, insufficient sleep, or alcohol abuse can exacerbate mood cycling – things I’ve been known to do from time to time.
But therapy inspired me to experiment with temperance and moderation once again.
(At the time of writing this, I’ve been on an “alcohol-free holiday” for over two weeks).
Another worthwhile insight is the parallels my therapist draws between my stories of social difficulties and Asperger’s syndrome. Again, I don’t think I rise to the level of a diagnosis. But I also think it’s possible for people to be “a little aspy” while still living a functional life.
It’s strange to look back and consider how far I’ve had to come to consciously learn my social skills. When I was young, my parents would often point out my inability to look people in the eye. I never took to sarcasm well. When other guys teased me, I often took it harder than I should. And I often went too far with my speech – saying things that were too direct or hurtful to others. Nobody ever looked to me as someone who was socially savvy.
It makes me laugh now thinking that I teach listening and speaking skills to Korean English teacher-trainees. Insights from therapy have made me realize I feel like an impostor and very qualified at the same time.
On one hand, as someone who’s not a naturally gifted speaker or listener, I feel a bit fraudulent teaching such skills to others.
On the other hand, the functional level of speaking and listening I’ve risen to in my own life came from my own efforts. I had to learn how to speak and listen. Which, in a sense, makes me a more qualified teacher than a natural communicator.
I’m so grateful I listened to the advice of Jordan Harbinger and another friend who sought online counseling. While it’s hard to measure the tangible benefits of such counseling, I do feel a lot more confident in my day-to-day life knowing I have someone I can speak to on a weekly basis.
Just like some people keep lawyers on retainer in the event they need their help down the road, so do I keep a counselor on speed dial for when (not if) an event shakes up my psyche.