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  • Writer's pictureSam Alvis

The Goal is Connection, Not Change: The Focus of Both Counseling and the Gospel

Updated: Sep 13, 2021


People often view counseling as a process you enter in order to change. Indeed, a recent counseling textbook I read directly stated that counseling “is about change” (Lambert, 2016, p. 134). We often narrowly define this “change” as changes in concrete behaviors and subjective symptoms. Clients (and myself) cite goals in counseling such as:


“To get rid of my anxiety.”

“To increase my self-esteem.”

“To improve my relationships.”

“To become more self-aware.”


Now these are all worthwhile intentions and goals. However, what often happens is that therapeutic “success” is narrowly defined by a reduction in symptoms and behaviors. It creates immense pressure to “fix, solve, cure, get rid off, (and for those of us that speak Christian-nese) break free from and fully heal” from x,y, or z behavior, symptom, thought, feeling, etc.


Contrary to what you might have been taught, God’s ultimate goal for you is not a glorified version of behavior modification. Rather, the God of the Universe hopes to be reunited with you in ultimate union and communion.


Now, some of you might read this and fear that I am promoting an overly grace-based “Jesus loves you” message that fails to address the real need for all human beings (yes, all people) to grow in their Christ-likeness (a process connected to sanctification), which often is quantified by changes in tangible behaviors and actions. What I actually am advocating for (and what I Scripture and psychological/counseling literature presupposes) is that change (in behavior, symptoms, etc.) cannot occur without first experiencing a context of safety with oneself, with God, with one’s environment, and with others (i.e. that only the safety found in and through salvation can allow for sanctification and change).


We know that when our nervous systems’ detect a sense of danger and/or life-threat (through a beautiful process called ‘neuroception’), our lovely prefrontal cortexes (a.k.a. the incredible part of our brain responsible for critical thinking, delayed gratification, and reasoning goes offline, due to constriction of blood flow and therefore oxygen to this particular area (Geller & Porges, 2014). This means that whenever our systems detect danger, it is much more difficult to integrate new information (i.e. learning an alternative behavior) and to implement new information into practice (i.e. actually practice an alternative behavior). Hint: this is why yelling at someone into behaving/thinking/feeling differently does. not. work.


So then, you’re telling me I just need to experience “safety” in order to change x, y, or z _______?


Yes.


But ironically, we can turn “feeling safe” into another task to be accomplished, another to do to check off our list. Rather, a sense of safety is ideally an ongoing experience “accomplished” through the accessibility and reliability of safe others in one’s life. These safe others can include a partner, family members, friends, spiritual community, pets, etc.; however, I argue that the most important “safe other” that we each need as a foundation of ease is the loving presence, acceptance, and steadfastness of God.


We often think that before we can come before God, we need to change x, y, or z about ourselves before we can “get right with Him.” Sadly, many churches encourage this viewpoint and promote a view that claims God’s presence with you is contingent upon your “right” or “wrong” behavior, thoughts, feelings, etc.


My friends: God first and foremost wants to be connected to YOU. Period. He wants to abide with you (John 15:5) and walk in the cool of the day with you (Gen. 3:8): meaning He simply wants to do life with you. He desires connection with you. Ironically, from that place of safe, predictable, accessible connection, we DO end up changing. But not because we initially set out to change. Rather, we are changed through the continued presence of safety, connection, and love that literally re-wires our nervous systems, which then empowers us to access new ways of behaving, thinking, feeling, and ultimately, a new way of living.


3 Steps to Move Towards Safety


  • What does “feeling safe” mean to you? Some of us might just assume that everyone walks around feeling safe, while others might be astonished that there are people who’ve never questioned their sense of safety. Likewise, it’s easy to focus on what feels “dangerous” or “triggering,” as though might be more familiar experiences, so it can be challenging to identify what cues of safety (may) exist in your life. Subtle, yet invaluable cues of safety might include:

    • Physical cues: steady, easy breathing; steady resting heart rate; “prosody” (i.e. the “sing-songy tone of voice that almost sounds melodic); the ability to make eye contact with others, the ability to smile, laugh, play, etc.

    • Interpersonal cues (i.e. things you notice from others): ^see the list above; slightly tilted head, open body posture, reaching out for an embrace, etc.

    • Environmental cues: quiet (i.e. absence of loud, startling sounds); soft lighting, greenery from nature, etc.

^^Remember that these are just SOME possible cues: your list will probably look different, as it is unique to YOU.

  • Go through the W’s of Safety:

    • With whom do I feel most safe/at-ease/connected?

    • Where can I access feeling safe?

    • What kinds of activities/actions can I take to help me feel safe?

    • When are the times of day, the week, or seasons that I feel at-ease?

  • For many of us, safety may be inaccessible due to ongoing psychological distress, unprocessed trauma, ongoing societal oppression/injustice, isolation, etc. Although counseling will not automatically “erase” the sense of danger your nervous system continuously encounters, the counseling relationship and process is a place of accessible, predictable, safe connection that can help shift your experience of yourself, others, your environment, and God. If you feel as if processing some of these things in a counseling space would be your best next step, click here to schedule an initial free consultation with me to explore how we can discover a space of safety, connection, and ultimately, change.


References


Geller, S., & Porges, S. (2014). Therapeutic presence: Neurophysiological mechanisms mediating feeling safe in therapeutic relationships. Journal of Psychotherapy Integration 24(3), 178-192.

Lambert, H. (2016). A theology of biblical counseling: the doctrinal foundations of counseling ministry. Zondervan.


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