I Was Stuck in the Past. Counseling Couldn’t Help Me.

by Elizabeth

Re-entry is messy. So messy, in fact, that much of what transpired in my life in the last year did not end up here on the blog. I was in emotional and situational chaos, and I had absolutely zero mental margin to publish – or even process – what was happening to me.

I think that’s as it should be. Not every difficult thing that happened in Cambodia was meant for public consumption either. And I’m not sure the value of platforming topics when they’re as raw as they were this last year and a half.

But I can tell you that in the middle of this mess of mine, I was meeting with a counselor. I’ve been raving about the benefits of counseling ever since 2006 when I first met with a Christian counselor. Over the years I’ve met with counselors off and on, whenever issues in my life popped up and kept me from functioning (the most recent being in early 2019 when my life was so rudely interrupted by anxiety and OCD). So, over the past year during our tumultuous repatriation, I thought I was doing the right thing by talking to a counselor.

Except I wasn’t getting anywhere.

On some level, I knew I wasn’t getting anywhere. Processing the past wasn’t helping me to accept my present circumstances the way it had helped me before, and it wasn’t helping me to move forward in life either. It seemed like nothing was helping. But the only construct I had for getting better (or “bettering,” as my friend Amy Young likes to call it) was Christian counseling, so I kept at it.

In February, fueled by a historic midwestern snow and ice storm, my spirits hit an all-time low. I knew I needed more help than I was currently getting, so I reached out to someone for debriefing. She’d been highly recommended to me by others. Meeting with her was helpful, and after a few sessions, I thought I was stable enough to make it to our formal week-long debrief in August.

I was much more forward-facing by that time, and even my debriefer noticed it. I still had questions about how in the world I was going to thrive in America, but she assured me that the week-long debriefing would help me move forward – and that if I still needed help figuring out the future after the big debrief, I should come and see her again. (I’ve been told that one of the purposes of “debriefing” is to move the past into the past so that you can walk forward into the future.)

Soon after I debriefed with her, my agency suggested Christian coaching as a way to get “unstuck” and move forward in life. It sounded intriguing. I’d never done coaching before, and in fact, I’d never been drawn to the idea. I’d always figured that when my emotions were a mess, I needed a treatment that addressed the emotions. But since counseling wasn’t currently working, I thought I could at least try the coaching.

I’m glad I did. Coaching is the reason I started writing again (I have several more blog posts in the works). It’s the reason I finally created a webpage for my freelance editing. It’s the reason I started working on a few other background projects. It’s the reason I started dreaming about the future again and the reason I’m living in the present instead of the past. I just didn’t have enough motivation for any of these things before coaching.

During the sessions my coach asks a lot of targeted questions, and I really have to think through my problems and the possible solutions to those problems. It’s hard work, and it’s practical (though come to think of it, the last time I sought counseling in Cambodia, my sessions were highly practical, immediately applicable, and pulled me out of my head, where I’d been stuck for the previous six months).

It’s also comforting not to have to figure out the past, at least for now. Perhaps I was trying too hard to process my past. Perhaps I needed to stop looking in the rearview mirror. Perhaps I needed to, along with Paul, forget what is behind and strain towards what is ahead. Don’t get me wrong. I’m still a huge proponent of counseling. It’s helped me so much in the past. It’s just that in my particular circumstances this year, I’m beginning to think I needed something else.

I’m not done with the coaching process, so I’m sure I have a lot more learning and growing to do. For instance, I’m still figuring out how to live in the tension of unsolved problems. I can, however, attest to its efficacy in moving me out of a very stuck place. I’m curious if any of you have ever been helped by either coaching or counseling — or some other avenue — and which life circumstances were particularly suited for the varying helping professions.

16 thoughts on “I Was Stuck in the Past. Counseling Couldn’t Help Me.

  1. Hello Elizabeth,

    How encouraging! Thank you for sharing.

    I’m familiar with coaching and could benefit from having a coach.

    If you feel comfortable, can you please share the name/contact info of your coach if you would recommend him/her? Does this coach understand missions (although I know that’s not a requirement in order to be a good coach)? If the coach understands missions, that would be a plus, but not necessary.

    Blessings, Molly

    On Thu, Jul 8, 2021 at 1:25 PM The Trotter Family wrote:

    > trotters41 posted: ” by Elizabeth Re-entry is messy. So messy, in fact, > that much of what transpired in my life in the last year did not end up > here on the blog. I was in emotional and situational chaos, and I had > absolutely zero mental margin to publish – or even pro” >

  2. Best wishes as you move forward. I found returning from Japan so difficult while returning from other countries less so. I didn’t know about Christian coaching. I appreciate the information on options other than counseling which sometimes is very helpful, but isn’t the only way to go.

    • The distance between the East and the West is a vast ocean! The enormous cultural differences can make it difficult to readjust. I’m thinking that the different experiences you collect in each place, in addition to who you are as a person in each time and place, would probably also influence the process of re-entry. I’m curious if you’ve identified certain things about life in Japan or life during re-entry that made that particular readjustment more difficult?

      And you’re so right, counseling isn’t the only solution. I’m thankful to be able to pass the gift of coaching on to others. ~Elizabeth

  3. I love this! You said it perfectly, coaching helps you get ‘unstuck and move forward. I am a coach living in Malaysia and have worked with many expat women over the years. Especially in light of this past (and continuing) season of loss and uncertainty, so many are struggling to move forward. Country restrictions and rules can make us feel completely stuck.

    (If anyone here is looking for a coach I offer a free trial session, Zoom option and reduced pricing for those in ministry. Karinthorne5@gmail.com)

  4. Elizabeth, thank you for sharing! I hired a transitions coach (specializing in missions as he had returned from 20 years on the field himself) after returning from Mozambique after 15 years and it was the best thing I did. I later saw a counselor as well and while helpful, it wasn’t as helpful as the coach. I think perhaps the forward focus and taking action is the most helpful part. As with you, together we came up with such practical actions. I actually hired him before I left and I think it helped me leave very well, as well as return well. Thanks for sharing this with others!

    • I’m so glad you found a coach who helped you! Re-entering after 15 years is a huge task. So thankful you had someone to walk with you through the process. ~Elizabeth

  5. Me too!! I have had tons of counseling in the past, with some benefit, but mostly minimal. I went to a Biblical counselor a few years ago and she wrecked my life for a long time by diagnosing my trauma symptoms as sin and using legalism/spiritually abusive tactics in our relationship. I was terrified of God and of the Church during and after that.

    I have been stuck in a trauma cycle for a few years now. But this year, I began getting coaching from my aunt, who is a leadership coach by vocation and calling. Oh my gosh!!!! Wish I would have tapped into her 3 years ago. She has changed my life. By encouraging and loving me where I am, not controlling me in any way, asking pointed questions and probing me to drill down to my why’s, praying with me and for me, celebrating my successes, helping me nurse my failures, she has done more for me in the past 5 months than I could ever imagine. Coaching rocks!!!

    • I’m so sorry for your bad experience with a “biblical counselor.” It sounds like, not only did she not treat your original trauma, but she also piled more religious trauma on top. I am so, so sorry. That must have been so hard, and so confusing.

      I am so glad you have your aunt now, to really help you. I love that she celebrates you! What a beautiful picture you have painted of your relationship, and of a healthy helping relationship. ~Elizabeth

  6. “I’m still figuring out how to live in the tension of unsolved problems”

    Hoo boy do I relate!! Much of my emotional mess is about the unsolvable problems I’m living with. Finding ways to move forward with the things I can control, while still leaving room to be sad about the things I can’t, is the best balance I’ve acheived so far. That and meds 😉

  7. Thanks for sharing. I agree and understand your experience. Different tools for different seasons.
    This is why I became a coach and spend most of my time as a coach now.

  8. Love this!

    Counseling is beautiful and I will always be a proponent for it. Similarly to you in late 2019/2020 i was given free coaching for a couple of months by a friend. She knew we had just returned from overseas and life was messy!! It was phenomenal!! I felt like it was a piece of the healing puzzle i was missing.
    You are absolutely right in that it pulled me out of my head —-i had been in my head for years!! She was a such blessing. Now i recommend both to everyone 😊

  9. Thank you Elizabeth for this much needed on your part and others who read it. With our mission we have gotten training on coaching and counseling. My gifting leans more to counseling then coaching but the more I do coaching the more I like it. Thats why your post is so needed. So many will not get help for many reasons but it’s becoming more acceptable. If the goal is to make it in this world then we must use the recourses out there.

    A short story…after a year of living in Papua New Guinea and me struggling with heat rash I was at my end. Our mission doctor said, Betty we have to get your anxiety down so I went on a low dose of meds for it. The next thing I did was ask my husband to put an air condition in our bedroom. For an hour after lunch I would turn it on and relax and enjoy an anxious free hour which made the rest of the day doable. Nobody else had an air con but I knew it would help me a lot. First thing I had to give up was worrying about what others thought of me. Second was to tell everyone why we put an air con in. I told them I did not come to Papua New Guinea to not make it, that my heart was there but my body and nerves were not ready for the heat was hard on me. Since I did want to stay, I would use whatever to help me stay, meds, an air com. I then ask them, do you want me to be able to stay here. There are times you have to turn all your focus on yourself for self care so you can then care for others. Reading your post tells me you did exactly that, a wise hearted women choice. Thank God for the help you have received because there are not enough member care people out there and to have a husband and wife who have a heart to do that is great. Blessings

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