Is “no” a bad word?

I’ve been wondering for a while about parental ambivalence around the word “no.” Some of us say “no” too much. Some of us say “no” too little. Some of us say “no,” but don’t really mean it (or stick to it). Some of us try to discourage our little ones from saying “no” to us, yet hope that our big kids will “just say no” to drugs and other harmful activities.

I knew a mother who went to extremes to avoid having the word “no” in her house, saying things like “Yes you may not do that” when her children were misbehaving, and teaching them that “N-O” was not OK to say.

So what is it about the word “no”?

From a child development standpoint, the “no” stage that toddlers go through is an important one. The child who says “no” recognizes (and indicates) that he or she is a separate being with feelings, desires, and opinions. While at first the “no’s” may seem meaningless (like the child who says “no” even to something she likes just because she’d rather say “no”), the child soon learns that “no” is a powerful word. People hear it and react (e.g., by expressing shock, anger, dismissal, criticism, curiosity, respect, etc.), and the child learns from those reactions.

As parents, it is important to use “no” appropriately and consistently. While some parents use “no” indiscriminately as their default answer to everything, a well-placed “no” can set limits and create structure. However, if “no” turns into “maybe” or “well, just this once isn’t bad” or “OK this is time it’s really your last chance” or any other “no-but-not-really” alternative, kids will learn that “no” doesn’t necessarily mean “no.” As a result, they will likely keep pushing boundaries to ever more ridiculous lengths to figure out where the limits are. They learn to be distrustful or dismissive because people don’t mean what they say, and they are less likely to listen to and respect others’ boundaries when they say “no.”

We also need to teach our children how to use the word “no” appropriately. Certainly, we want our children to be polite when they decline an offer. We also want them to be able to communicate clearly and effectively that they refuse. “No” sets boundaries on personal behavior; the ability to say “no” can help a child avoid negative peer pressure, stick to their convictions, and maintain their safety. And it is absolutely imperative that we teach our children how to judge and say “no” to people, situations, and substances that are likely to harm them.

Finally, “no” is an important element of asserting agency. After all, “yes” is meaningless without the possibility of “no.” (Think of all the movie and TV engagement/wedding scenes that come down to “Will she, or won’t she?”) There is a difference between the person who complies because there is no alternative and the person who complies because he chooses to.

That’s part of life’s test. When we were in God’s presence, of course we believed in him, trusted him, and obeyed him. God and all his glory and goodness were right there! How could we even imagine not doing so? We need the conditions of separation and opposition (just like toddlers and teenagers) to assert our agency and demonstrate that we choose, of our own free will, to obey and follow him. Our perfect Parent continually invites us to do those things that will draw us closer to him and give us joy. While setting consistent rules and limits and offering choices, he gives us the opportunity to say “no”; allows us to assert our wants, needs, and opinions; lets us choose how we will use our agency; and blesses us when we choose the right. When it comes to using the word “no,” that’s a standard we earthly parents can strive for.

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What should I look for in a counselor? Part 2

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to counseling or counselors, and while there are basic standards of good counseling (see previous post), much of the counseling experience consists of what you and your counselor bring to the table. The counselor uses his or her knowledge, training, theoretical foundations, personality, values, life experience, and intuition to understand and choose how to approach your personal situation. At the same time, you come in with your own beliefs, values, goals, problems, perspectives, expectations, knowledge, history, life experiences, and ways of doing things. Together, you and your counselor will create a unique relationship and experience as you work on achieving your goals and making positive changes in your life.

With something as personal (and personalized) as counseling, it’s important to find someone you work well with. Here are a few things to consider:

1. Professionalism. How does this counselor present him- or herself? Does the counselor treat you with respect? How do you see other colleagues and office staff being treated? Are office policies clearly defined? Does the counselor keep promises, appointments, and agreements? Does he or she keep not only your confidences, but those of other clients?

2. Environment. Do you feel comfortable in the office/counseling room? Is this someplace where you would like to spend some time? Depending on the setting (agency vs. private practice) a counselor may have more or less control over the way the office is furnished and decorated. Some counselors use this space as a way to express themselves; others keep the room more simple and neutral. Regardless of décor, the space should be comfortable, safe, and free of distractions. If the room itself is a turn-off, it might be wise to look for counseling elsewhere.

3. Type of counseling offered. What are my goals? Will this counseling method meet my needs? Does it fit well with my way of being and/or does it require me to stretch myself and be open to new things? Counseling theories and techniques come in a variety of “flavors.” Some focus on the past while others focus on the present. Some emphasize insight while others emphasize action. Approaches may be rational, artistic, analytical, solution-focused, relational, emotional, holistic, practical, abstract, and so on. Most counselors I know have a variety of tools in their toolbox and adapt to the needs of their clients. Ask the counselor to explain his or her approach and ask if they have the training, tools, or experience to help you with your particular issue.

4. Therapist qualities. What kinds of personal qualities do I value in a therapist? Do I prefer to work with a therapist of a particular gender, background, religion, or other characteristic? Do I feel comfortable talking to this person, even about difficult subjects? Is he or she comfortable and respectful talking to me?

5. Your expectations. What do I want from this experience? Do I expect counseling to be helpful or unhelpful? Is this a resource or a punishment? Will it be worth my time and effort? The expectations you bring to the table will affect your relationship with your counselor and your results. Ideally, counseling is a collaborative process; you and your counselor work together to define your goals and find solutions to your problems. But the best counselor can’t meet your needs if you don’t let them know what they are—or if you aren’t willing to accept their help. Talk about your concerns and expectations. Ask questions. Be open to trying new things. And if some aspect of the counseling isn’t working for you, speak up.

Counseling can provide comfort and hope, but it also requires energy and effort. It’s good to find someone you can have a good working relationship with. That person doesn’t have to perfect; he or she just has to be a good enough fit for you. Decide what’s most important to you and approach your decision prayerfully. Talk to a few counselors, listen to your instincts, do your part, and counseling can be a productive and rewarding experience.

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What should I look for in a counselor? Part 1

The number one predictor of counseling success is the quality of the relationship between the client and the counselor—regardless of the theory or method used. You will want to find a counselor who is a good “fit” for you. If you have a counselor you trust and feel comfortable with, that opens the door to a productive and positive counseling experience.

Here are some important things to ask about and look for:

1. Qualifications. Licensure requirements vary by state, but in general a counselor needs to have completed a masters degree (or higher) in counseling psychology or a similar field, a period of supervised training/internship (usually lasting several years), and state and/or national licensing exams that cover counseling theory, process, technique, law, and ethics. An intern is a counselor-in-training working through the licensure process under a licensed supervisor. Your counselor should pursue continuing education and be in good standing with the state licensing board—information you can look up on the board’s section of the state government’s website.

2. Ethics. Counselors are bound by codes of ethics set either by state law or by their professional organizations. In general, these ethical codes emphasize the importance of confidentiality, clear relational and policy boundaries, respect for clients (including non-discrimination and non-exploitation), competence, professional relationships, and legal responsibilities. Examples of ethical codes include those set by CAMFT and NASW. Certainly, the vast majority of counselors work within prescribed ethical guidelines. However, if you suspect unethical behavior on the part of a practicing therapist, those concerns need to be addressed and may need to be reported to the governing licening board.

3. Clarity. You need to know what counseling is about and have your questions answered straightforwardly. As part of the informed consent process, your counselor will talk to you about your expectations and goals, the process of counseling, confidentiality and the counseling relationship, risks and benefits of counseling, fees and policies, and so forth. This information should be in writing as well. You should be able to ask questions at any time and get the answers you need to make informed decisions about counseling in general and to understand your counseling process in particular.

4. Therapist qualities. We all have some people and personalities we prefer and some we clash with. I’ve known excellent counselors who are blunt and opinionated, and I’ve known excellent counselors who tend to be diplomatic and flexible. Some work in concrete terms, others use metaphors and stories. Some use art and drama, others use meditation and reflection. Some talk a lot; some hardly say a word during the counseling hour. All can be effective. It may be helpful to interview a few therapists so you can choose the one that fits for you.

Next time, I’ll address finding that “fit.”

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How does one go about finding a counselor?

So you’ve decided to seek therapy. Perhaps you have a problem you want to tackle, a change you want to make, or an issue you want to discuss. Maybe you’re going through a major life transition. Maybe you need a sounding board or new skills. Either way, the time is right to find a counselor you can trust. But how do you find that person?

Others’ recommendations and word-of-mouth

Doctors, psychiatrists, school counselors, and bishops regularly give counseling referrals. Since they already know you, they can point you toward someone who may be a good fit for your needs. Ask your friends, acquaintances, and relatives if they know any good therapists. They can tell you what they like or dislike about the counselors they’ve worked with, which may help you refine your criteria.

Lectures, presentations, classes, and groups

In general, counselors don’t like to advertise. But they do like to talk about their area of expertise. Some give free or low-cost presentations to church, community, or professional groups. Others may offer community education courses. Some lead therapy or support groups, which can be an affordable introduction to therapy.

Nonprofit or community counseling agencies
Counseling agencies offer subsidized or reduced-cost counseling services, which are often provided by counseling interns. These interns generally hold a masters degree in counseling and are working to get their required supervised hours of experience for licensure. An intake counselor asks for some basic information and assigns you to a counselor. You may request certain counselor characteristics, in terms of gender, language spoken, or specialty, and the intake counselor will do her best to honor those requests. You may have to spend time on a waiting list, depending on current demand and space available. If the assigned counselor is not a good match, it is usually not too difficult to switch to another within the agency.

Referral lists and directories

The easiest place to find the names of counselors is in the phone book. Professional organizations (e.g., CAMFT and AMCAP) and media-based organizations (e.g., Psychology Today) have on-line directories that allow you to search counselors by such characteristics as location, specialty, gender, and price. After you get some therapist names based on your criteria, you may want to utilize…

Search engines, web pages, and blogs

This step is optional, but it’s becoming more common as more counselors are developing a Web presence. With a few names in hand, you may want to do a brief Internet search and see if the therapist(s) that interests you has a web page or blog you can look at. If they do, you’ll be able to read a little more about their approach to counseling and get a little preview of what to expect.

Good counselors aren’t hiding; you just need to know where to look.

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