A difference that one conversation can make

About psychological help offered by the EAP Helpline, concerns associated with seeking professional help and why turning for help earlier rather than later matters
EAP, Psychology, Work

Katarzyna Kowalska: You have had not hundreds, but thousands of conversations via the EAP Helpline. I have also conducted a lot of talks. I would like us to discuss what our caller might expect and what good may come out of it. It seems that one conversation is not much…

Marta Chromiec: We often receive calls from people who are going through a rough time in their lives. They have had a fight with their partner or a disagreement at work, they keep reliving these situations and have no idea what to do. Then my key role is to listen to the person and try to calm down the emotions, at least a little. I also try to help my interlocutor take a bird’s eye view on the events; and assess them more objectively. This is to analyze together what has happened, look for solutions and consider how to have another go at it. In this conversation, we prepare to face the situation, try to foresee possible scenarios, think of arguments and find the right language. I may suggest steps that could be useful, but it is up to the customer to put them into practice.

KK: Some people are afraid that once they contact a psychologist, they will be evaluated and diagnosed, finding out unpleasant truths about themselves. Meanwhile, in some cases we do not even try to draw from our expertise on abnormalities at all because there is no need for it. Just like you described, you can talk through a life crisis, deliberate over a difficult decision and gain a new perspective with us.

MC: Let us be honest. We still happen to hear from people: “Am I crazy? Only crazy people go to a psychologist”. This is beside the point. A conversation is the best way to stop suppressing our emotions, release them and make some space for us to handle our feelings. In the end, customers tell us: “I am better now”, “a weight off my shoulders” and “I needn’t have feared this conversation”. Naturally, one conversation is not always enough, sometimes a diagnosis and a longer therapy is needed. The purpose of this first talk is to find out about the situation and needs, but it also makes a little change by itself.

KK: I think that a lot depends on the point in time when someone finally decides to explore this possibility. Typically, serious mental problems do not occur out of a sudden, without giving any warning signs. They are often preceded by a long journey on which we ignore a number of signals and neglect to care for ourselves. Do you also get the feeling that people wait long before they seek support?

MC: Yes, I do. Many of the callers tell me they have wanted to call for quite a while; they have entertained the idea of giving it a try. However, they have not been sure whether this is a good idea, whether they will be ready to open up and admit they cannot handle situations which they themselves deem to be trivial. They hear the news from the world some of which are really tragic, and they tend to downplay their problems and get embarrassed about them. It is worth mentioning to our customers that we do not judge whether their problems are serious enough. If something keeps bothering them and affects their wellbeing on a daily basis, it must be taken care of.

KK: It also happens that everything seems to be fine, and yet someone feels bad about their life. They have a good job and family, enjoy a good health, and admit that they have nothing to complain about. And still, they are not joyful, cannot find the energy and motivation to get on with it all. Sometimes, when people try to examine their feelings, they hear from others that they are fussing, or they accuse themselves of fussing.

MC: I often get calls from people who say that actually there is nothing wrong going on but they feel anxious all the time and fear for themselves, their loved ones and work. This tells me that something is up and this person is definitely not making up fictional problems. We are trying to dig for the root cause. When we take a closer look at the private and professional situation and the relationships, it often turns out this person is haunted by something from the past, including from a distant past, a difficult experience which had influenced the caller’s fate and keeps recurring throughout their life.

KK: Looking from the sidelines, we can point to certain links which are missed by the affected individual.

MC: People may even be aware of the underlying cause but think the matter has been dealt with and processed, and they have started a completely new life. Well, this is not entirely true. For example, when we analyze communication in a relationship, our caller starts noticing they demonstrate behaviors which they disapproved of in their parents in the past. They only realize this in our conversation and remark: “I am indeed aware of this because that is how my mother reacted”, and “this is the very thing that bothered me in my father, and I do exactly the same”. This can only be revealed when we get to the bottom of our difficult situations.

KK: When we are in the middle of a situation, it is difficult for us to see all of its aspects. Sometimes, apparently in a mysterious way, people experience a series of similar events – they run into a certain type of partner, experience a number of disappointments at work, or relive the same emotion of being taken for granted or worthless. The cause may lie in that person themself.

MC: Many of my interlocutors would like to make a change, but they have no idea how. We are so wrapped up in our thoughts and behaviors, that we find it difficult to imagine things could be different. Meanwhile, we may trigger certain behaviors by some of our reactions, for example when we exaggerate or inflate our expectations. This may be the reason for our problems.

KK: Let us add that you do not need a ready-made description or a full understanding of your problem before you contact us. We sometimes hear at the beginning of our conversation: “I don’t know how to say it” or “I don’t know where to begin”.

MC: I always tell people to start from the very beginning. First and foremost, I do not rush things. At first, I try to identify whether it is a private or professional issue. I keep asking questions about what happened, what the situation looked like and what the biggest difficulty seems to be. This is how our conversation starts. Once the caller becomes assured that they are being listened to, they give me more details on what they believe is most important of their own initiative. I do not expect the customer to precisely define their problem; this will be our joint effort.

KK: The list of issues we deal with is extensive. This could be anything which the caller finds difficult in their private or professional life but we also discuss ways of helping other people the caller is worried about or ways in which our interlocutor may achieve their goals more effectively.

MC: We discuss problems in a relationship, difficult relations with parents, tensions with teenagers, anxiety, fear, loneliness, conflicts at work, overwhelming duties, pressure, feeling of being unappreciated, coping with a loss, signs of burnout, addictions, symptoms of depression and suicidal thoughts. But also about how to lose weight or sleep better, be more assertive or learn to be a boss. The needs vary as much as the people we talk to.

KK: The insecurity associated with the first interaction with us seems to be natural. After all, this is a new situation in which our customer must trust a stranger (though a professional) enough to share very personal matters. The feeling of stress, being ashamed and embarrassed usually pass quickly.

MC: In the first couple of minutes, our customers try to evaluate us, and find out whether we are trustworthy and they can share their problem with us. Once they have become comfortable and ascertained themselves we are there to help, give guidance and deal with emotions, they start talking more at ease. We sometimes get asked whether what the caller shares will certainly not be revealed. This is because they know the programme is paid for by the employer. There is no threat of compromising confidentiality because we only tell the employer how many conversations we have had, not what we discussed. In the beginning, there is a little of exploring the ground, and then the conversation starts.

KK: This is a different type of discussion than the support we can get from the family and friends.

MC: Not everyone has a family and friends. It is not always easy to reveal your weaknesses even to your loved ones. Some people choose to pretend they are fine and yet they suffer inside terribly, something bothers and pains them. We are not always good at sharing with our loved ones, or we simply do not want to burden them with our own issues. People tell me “my husband has a stressful time at work”, or “my mother is sick” and “I do not want to aggravate their problems”. Not everyone is willing and ready to listen to the confidences of a loved one.

KK: Even when we do have someone to talk to, it usually works both ways: we support them and they support us, and we both share our experiences. The relationship with a psychologist is different in that both people concentrate on the customer’s feelings. The professional will not tell you: “Just listen to what my problems are” or “I would have finished that long time ago if I were you”. This is a time fully dedicated to that one person. They do not need to worry about hurting the other person’s feelings, or whether confiding that much will affect what is between them.

MC: Such a conversation is something we do for ourselves. A space where someone may honestly tell about their sorrows, without thinking how this may be perceived. We listen and accept without judging. I have a feeling that we all know deep in our hearts what the right thing to do is, but we do not go with our gut feeling because we are influenced by those around us. The possibility to analyze a matter from different perspectives with help from an objective person who does not give you advice or persuade you to do anything often helps us hear the inner voice better.

KK: People close to us know us well so on the one hand they can understand us better, but on the other they have a certain perception of us which can be a barrier to change. A partner, parents and children may also have their agendas by which they are motivated, even unconsciously and without ill intentions. Sometimes they do not want us to change as they feel threatened by a change. Sometimes they want to protect us.

MC: It is true, and this is something we can also discuss, and think about managing those relationships. We do not mean to say that appointments with a psychologist can replace relationships with our loved ones, but they can make them better.

KK: I also believe that our Helpline is an additional possibility which people may use; and one that has different characteristics and advantages from the support they already take advantage of. This is an additional resource, and the more resources you have, the better. Resolving problems is also about using the resources at your disposal.

MC: You take matters in your own hands. It takes courage to admit to yourself that the problem is too serious to handle it on your own, and that seeking help is necessary. This is exactly what we do in many other areas of our life, and we never perceive it as a weakness but a reasonable action.

KK: You could, of course, say: “I’d rather go and have a couple of beers with my friends than visit a psychologist”. Everyone makes their own choice on how to deal with their problems and how they feel about it afterwards. However, it is worth thinking beyond the temporary relief and notice whether this helps them in the longer term.

MC: We also have people who say: “Been there, done that, and it didn’t help”, because they have had appointments with a psychologist, they may have undergone psychotherapy on a few occasions in their life, and they stopped the work feeling that it was not helpful. However, when they give it another chance, it turns out they are only just now ready for such work, they have come to the point of really trying it, they are more aware of who they are, and they have collected new experiences. We sometimes have customers who decide to give it another try because of our conversation, and they have been grateful to themselves for it.

KK: People may get discouraged because they have not met the right professional. And this is not only about the lack of knowledge or incompetence but about the chemistry between two people, just like in all interpersonal relations.

MC: We often tell people whom we recommend a longer therapy that they should see how they feel about their relationship with the professional. If there is no chemistry, there is no point in forcing oneself to work with a certain person. Preferably however, one should not jump into such a conclusion after the first meeting, but give it some time. We sometimes get the feeling after the first appointment that this is not the right person because they may say things we did not expect, surprise us with an observation that is at odds with how we see the world and ourselves, or ask inconvenient questions but when we think on it we find this may be exactly what we need.

KK: This is often the case when we get a call from someone who thinks it is others who should change to make them feel better. Noticing one’s own contribution to a situation seems inconvenient at first, but is essential. In addition, it often reinvigorates the caller because they feel they can actually do something and that much depends on what they do.

MC: This is yet another reason to look at your problems from a distance. And give it a real try – another time, with another therapist. If something has not worked, one should look for possible reasons. My callers sometimes tell me they have exhausted all possibilities but when we go deeper into things that failed we find out that the solution was not fully implemented or it was implemented at a wrong time. Some people believe they have tried having a conversation with their partner, but they started that conversation emotionally, taking the partner by surprise when they were busy with something else, or even against the partner’s will.

KK: Or people keep trying things out which have never worked before.

MC: This is true. We often want do get something done quickly, while such important conversations, whether at home or at work, need some preparations. One needs to work on emotions, on keeping calm, and think what they want to achieve, prepare arguments, choose the right time and give the other person a fair warning.

KK: We provide hints on what people should focus on to increase their chances of success. But we do not give a ready-made solution.

MC: We definitely do not dictate solutions.

KK: Let us also talk about conversations that do not have a clearly defined goal. Some people just want to chat, and do not expect anything else.

MC: We hold such conversation and, in spite of appearances, being there for someone when they go through a rough time is very helpful. This may help them “process” things, get used to a new situation and organize their thoughts. Also, accept their emotions. We sometimes get asked: “is this normal?” or “is something wrong with me?”. This is because people do not know what to think about what they are going through, and additionally they think others are better at coping with such issues.

KK: These type of questions may come from the fact that we are too harsh on ourselves, we do not give ourselves enough time to adapt to a new situation, demand too much from ourselves, an put too much pressure on ourselves. Then, there is no surprise that something is failing.

MC: This is the case on many occasions. It is all the more worth making a gift to ourselves which is a time reserved only for our needs. On the other hand, when really disturbing things are happening that require a consultation with a doctor or go beyond the scope of the programme, we are honest about it. This is not just referring a caller to another professional. We discuss the options available, what the customer may expect from different types of support and we often help to choose the right kind of help.

KK: We encourage everyone not to wait too long before making a call, and not to keep their problems to themselves for a long time because this causes chronic stress which undermines our health and coping skills. Ensuring we are in balance on an ongoing basis is essential because we never know what life has in store for us.

MC: It is important to notice something is happening. Overburdened by daily routines, we do not pay attention to ourselves enough. Only when we have a moment just for ourselves or before falling asleep we may get a signal that we are not at our best. But we push it away. Or we may wake up too early in the morning and experience the disturbing thoughts, images or emotions twice as hard.

KK: Thank you for this conversation. I think we managed to address at least some of the concerns about making the first contact.

MC: When I started my career years ago, I was convinced my work would be meaningful. Today, I know from my interlocutors that it offers real help. Some people come back months or years later to let me know that our talk was the impulse that started a positive change in their life. I hope that the conversations through the helpline and our interview will make a difference and help people make the first step. Thank you and do not hesitate to call.

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