What Do You Do When Things Just Feel a Little Off?
By Andrew Jordan with Petra McGuire PhD
On paper it looks like everything is going great, but you have a nagging feeling that something is not quite right. I sat down with Dr. Petra McGuire, a local psychologist, and talked with her about mental well-being.
A: First question to jump us in here would be that you’ve talked about counseling as sort of preventative maintenance. Tell me more about what you mean by that.
P: I think people tend to think of counseling as “I have a problem that I need to fix, so I think I’ll go to therapy, and I’ll fix it.” A lot of people show up that way; it’s like things have to get bad enough for there to be a reason. That’s a helpful use of therapy, but another great use of therapy is where, “I feel like I’m doing ok, but there’s this thing that’s kind of nagging at me and it might be helpful for me to work through that before it turns into something that’s a big problem.” Part of it is really reshaping how we think of what therapy even is. It is not only developing solutions to big problems, it’s about recognizing that my life could be better and pursuing that.
A: I think most people aren’t familiar with therapy as you described it. I wasn’t as familiar either with this idea of preventative maintenance. If someone says, “Hey Petra, I have this but, I’m doing ok.” How do you approach that with a client?
P: It is a little bit different process in part because one of the first things I want to know as a therapist - when you come through the door, one of the first things we talk about - is what made you decide to call. In these ‘preventative maintenance cases’ it’s harder to answer that question for the client, because it’s more of a sense of “I don’t know, something just feels off. I’m not my best self.” I think that’s a good enough answer to that question.
A: Let’s say something just feels off and you start exploring and uncovering some things to work on. Maybe give examples even of things you sometimes help people work through or how you end up helping people.
P: When we think about stressors we tend to think about bad things. But it’s really ALL the things that require our resources. That’s what I think about as stressors. So it could be I’m really excited about planning my kid’s birthday party. That’s a fun thing to get to do and I’m looking forward to it AND now I have all these things that I looked up on Pinterest that I have to make…. Or I enjoy my work AND I have to be there from 8-5 and that gets draining. It’s just the demands on our resources - good or bad - that are the stressors in our lives.
So, in therapy, we start to understand those a little bit - just get to know them. Then we start to think about what’s on the other side of that. What’s balancing that out? I ask grownups all the time what they do for fun, and they look at me like that’s the most ridiculous thing that they’ve ever heard. Especially grownups who have children. That’s when it becomes, “I do things for my kids to have fun or for me to have fun with my kids.” I work with a lot of moms, and they often don’t have any idea what they do for fun…they don’t do anything for fun for themselves. And that’s such an important part of our coping. We have to make room for fun to experience joy, and joy is one of those experiences that balances life’s stressors. If people can’t find joy, it’s probably because they’re not going after it.
Our well-being and positive emotions also hinge so much on being able to feel powerful somewhere – to accomplish something meaningful. For some people this comes from the work that they get paid to do, for other people it comes from lots of different places. Wherever it comes from, we need it.
And then, we need moments of peace. That looks like time to be quiet, to be calm, to be still. There are not a lot of people carving out that time. It’s easy for that to fall very low on the priority list.
A: Interesting! That’s a different way of thinking about it. So from that perspective. Instead of feeling parent guilt for having a hobby that doesn’t involve my kids, your perspective is, having that hobby probably strengthens my ability to deal with the stressors and ultimately makes me a better parent.
P: It is what literally makes you able to be available in all those other realms of your life. I hear people describe it as selfish. But it’s absolutely necessary for you to be able to be available for those things that stand out as important to you.
A: So, if someone says, “I’m intrigued. I like this idea of a professional helping me take a look - an objective look - at the balance of my ability to deal with stress and my current stressors.” For example, if someone is not carving out a lot of time for peace, what would you advise them to do?
P: I think it often starts with dealing with the why’s of that. What’s getting in the way? We look at the barriers. We’re really good at it when we’re young. Most little kids really focus a lot on going after positive emotion. As grownups we don’t prioritize that in the same way. We start to think about things differently. Some of it is figuring out what messages we’ve gotten over time that tell us that going after our positive emotions is a bad idea, that it’s not allowed, not permissible, or not responsible. That’s one I hear a lot, “Well, I have to do the responsible thing.” The person who says that has written a story about what it means to be responsible that doesn’t seem to be serving them in the best way. So, the first part is looking at the barriers. And often if we can move the barriers, things start to shift naturally. We don’t have to work very hard to get someone to do things that they like to do, if they can remove the reasons that they are not doing them.
A: I assume you’ve counseled many people in these kinds of things. Is there ever a time when you counsel someone to pursue fun and they take it too far and you have to talk to them about reining it back in.
P: Sometimes a pendulum swing kind of happens. Finding a middle ground is hard in whatever we’re doing. So, it’s not uncommon to see this, “woohoo!” type of response. It goes way to the other side and we talk about that. I can even prepare clients for it by saying, “This is going to feel really good, potentially, and we may be tempted to want to push just a little too far.” I try to normalize that because it does happen. Certainly, I don’t want people to feel guilty for finding what the right balance for them is. Because again, balance happens by leaning one direction and then the other over and over again - you’re not going to find the perfect center and stay there forever. It’s about, over time, being better able to notice when I’m out of balance so that I can do something about that. The goal of therapy, always, is for it to end. We want you to be able to take the skills that you learn here at this point in time and use them at the next point in time.
A: Gotcha. So, you come in and you’re maybe way out of balance. And you help them with that initial assessment of things, but you’re teaching them in the process how to identify these things on their own.
P: Yes, by questioning, “How do I see when that’s happening? And how do I have the skills to do something about it?” To self-assess. Do I need more joy? Do I need more peace? Do I need more power? And how will I go about looking for those things?” The skill is that once you’ve worked though that process and you’ve gotten good information you find what you do to find your peace, power, and purpose. Then the next time you’re better at knowing what’s missing and going after that in your own way. It’s different for everybody.
A: If someone has these kinds of issues and you’re teaching them to self-identify what does that look like time wise?
P: If you’re able to come in in a preventative kind of way, from that place of feeling okay but something being just a little off, typically in 4-6 sessions we get some good groundwork laid. We often start off weekly to self-identify and see what balance might look like, then we start spacing sessions out. Clients go do some of the things we’ve talked about and see what it looks like over a couple of weeks. Then they come back, and we talk about what’s gone well, what’s been a struggle, and rethink the plan together. Life doesn’t happen in a therapist’s office, so client have to go live to figure out what works best for them.
A: Do you find, then, that people have been through that process and then a year later something crazy happens, they come back. Does that happen too?
P: Totally. It’s helpful. It’s kind of like why we establish care with a family doctor, for example, so that we have that support when we need it. It’s sometimes really meaningful to see someone once a month for several months, just as kind of a touch base to get perspective on some things or hear an outsider’s take on how we may understand what’s going on with our lives in a different way. Cause we can get tunnel vision on our own problems sometimes.
This is where we think of it as courses of therapy. We may deal with something for a few weeks and then not see the person for a while. And then, again, life happens, and it could be a whole different thing. Then you start and do what needs to be done with that.
I don’t know. It’s a weird job. It’s a great job.
This is the end of Part 1 of my interview with Dr. Petra McGuire. Even if things aren’t bad now, consider a therapist as someone who can help you get from “ok” to “great.” In Part 2, we’ll demystify the process of selecting and getting started with a therapist. Look for Part 2 next week.
Andrew Jordan is the owner of Jordan CPA Services, specializing in providing Chief Financial Officer services to small businesses. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 417-310-9287
Petra McGuire, PhD is a licensed psychologist and owner of McGuire Psychological, LLC. She can be reached at email@example.com or (417) 793-0620.