Self Help or Therapy: How to Embrace Both

By: Loriann Oberlin
Last Update: October 31, 2016

Years before I was a licensed counselor, I wrote non-fiction books. A few landed on the bookstore's self-help, parenting, or psychology shelves.

Devouring such books led me to both of my careers, and when I meet with clients who feel stuck, I sometimes recommend reading, and other self-help measures. I’ve gained a better understanding of what works when flying solo and what is best undertaken with trained counsel. In a nutshell:

Assess Symptoms:  When you’re feeling in a funk, more worried or irritable than usual, and especially if you’ve gained some great coping strategies by seeking counseling before, you may bolster yourself by reading a carefully chosen self-help primer.

But if you feel panicked the majority of the time, have physical symptoms that disrupt daily living (activities, sleep, eating), and especially, if you’ve felt the world would be better without you, or you could care less if you woke up or remained asleep all day, it is time to enlist professional help.

Look to the Best Helpers: Fred Rogers, everyone’s favorite neighbor, used to advise us to “look to the helpers” in times of need. Friends, pastors, and treasured confidantes all have a place as they pass along encouragement, sometimes wisdom.

If you’re grappling with true mental health, addictive, and physical symptoms, look at your employee assistance program and/or insurance benefits. Do an online search for bona fide academic credentials and state licensing. Without scrutiny, you may find a Ph.D., for instance, in a field other than psychology or counseling. Someone may claim to help with coaching, but that person cannot diagnose, treat, and work with other allied healthcare providers. Your symptoms warrant more.

Initials such as LPC/LCPC, LCSW, LMFT are all master’s level clinicians who can be paneled with insurance carriers, as can those with Psy.D and Ph.D. after their names. Each state has a licensing board with online verification options for counselors, therapists, social workers and psychologists. A 'G' in the credentials indicates that a clinician has completed educational and state assessment requirements, but is working mandated clinical hours under the supervision of a fully licensed professional. Many clinics hire a vast array of credentials in order to service more clients in need.

See what your budget affords. Look at provider websites that outline training, continuing education, theoretical approaches to change, and preferred clientele. If this piques your interest and the provider is out of your insurance network, consider at least a first meeting. You may be able to use your out-of-network benefits, flexible spending or health savings accounts, and you can always ask if the provider could grant you sessions at fees slightly lower than the usual and customary.

 Pinpoint Stage of Change: If a change is far off, consider yourself a pre-contemplator. If you feel you’ll embark on change within the next six months, you are likely a contemplator. People in these two stages can spend years in each.

Once you feel ready to take action in the immediate future—let’s say within 30 days—you are in the preparation stage, and most definitely in the action one if you have made efforts to fix what’s not working for you. Lastly, if you did act—maybe even resolved things—you want to watch out for relapse. We call this the maintenance stage.

Understanding your stage assists your search for face-to-face therapy and your pursuit of proper self-help measures.

 Match Your Style: Did you ever buy exercise equipment or the fitness watch and later look upon these as impulse purchases? Start a diet to see your motivation fizzle? Feel stalled in counseling because it caused you to finally face your fears?

These are all fairly common stuck points. Some can be prevented, others cannot. If you’re reaching out for self-help books, so is approximately 50% of the population. Today’s online technology makes book selection as easy as a mouse click.

Use the “look inside” option to get a feel for the introduction and first chapter of a book. Think about that stage of change. Browse the “about the author” page for credentials and the index to see if well-known sources have been quoted.

When I wrote both editions of my separation and divorce book, I worked as a journalist first and worked on my graduate degree at Johns Hopkins when researching the second edition. My citation meter was good to begin with, but it definitely climbed! Readers also tell me that the tone in my books pretty much matches my conversational style. That seems appropriate for the help my readers need in deciding whether to try a trial separation or consider as big a step as divorce.

A good author will craft anecdotes to illustrate concepts so that readers feel encouraged in what they do well already, and from the author's tone, feel motivated for what they must change moving forward.

Glimpse into an author’s style by typing the title of a book and the word “Facebook” into a browser’s search field. Social media speaks volumes when it comes to trustworthy sources. Yes, these can be fun, sometimes quirky, but look for a balance of quality posts as well.

 Rely Upon Research, Pass on Promises: If a product promises specific weight loss in a limited time frame, would you trust it or be wary?

Wary would be the right answer. No product, no book, and frankly no therapeutic interventions, can stand by such a claim. “Always” is a buzzword. So is “never have to ____ again.” Really?

Editors love covers with numbers and attention-getting phrases:  'Banish belly fat forever' or 'seven secrets to make your sex life sizzle!' Such phrasing may pull your eyes to the inner pages of a publication, but pass on such promises and scrutinize the pages for legitimate research. After all, would you accept medical or relationship advice from someone with merely a TV show as a platform? Plenty of people do.

Check for statistics from government agencies or evidence-based research. It’s why I’ve invested in training for couples counseling using methods studied and tested via the Gottman method.

Think of it this way, would you ponder your future decisions with a celebrity who has written a self-help book from one life experience or with the wise counsel of an authority who has invested in education, thoroughly investigated a topic and worked with multitudes who have lived/worked through that experience successfully?

I rest my case. 

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