College is undoubtedly a challenging and stressful time for young adults. There are academic challenges, interpersonal challenges, developmental challenges, and financial challenges to be address during the four years or so of undergraduate life. It is most unfortunate that with all of these challenges and the prevalence of mental health issues on college campuses that more young people do not take full advantage of the mental health services that are available to them through the college counseling center. My belief is that feelings of shame and a lack of self-acceptance play a big role in preventing college students from reaching out to the counseling center, their parents, and other available professionals for help.
The anatomy of shame according to Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy lies in rating one’s self as less good, less worthwhile, less adequate because of the presence of some perceived defect, flaw, or imperfection. When young people become aware of their emotional and behavioral problems they are likely to use this acknowledgement against themselves and rate themselves in a denigrating fashion. Shame results and leads them to avoid seeking out professionals who can help them. Shame in my estimation is understandable given the negative messaging about being less than perfect that bombards young people in so many different ways but shame is still a very self-defeating emotional response. No one takes prudent action to address a personal problem if that person is shameful for having that problem. REBT teaches young people the philosophy of unconditional self-acceptance while acknowledging the presence of emotional and behavioral problems. REBT encourages young people to fully accept themselves “warts and all.” The advantage of accepting yourself “warts and all” lies in the emotions you then subsequently feel about your problems. Instead of experiencing shame, which blocks you from pursuing helpful counseling services with self-acceptance you can feel appropriately concerned about your problems. This concern about your emotional behavioral problems will motivate you to seek help so you can get back on track and stay in school. I speak from experience here as when I was an undergraduate student at the University of Pennsylvania I suffered from self-defeating anxiety. I sought help from the student counseling center but remember being shameful as I tried to slip into the counseling center unnoticed by any students that might be passing by as I entered. Thankfully, I did not let my shame block me from going into the counseling center and I received excellent help in learning how to eliminate my anxiety and make more friends, date, and address academic stressors. It would have been so much easier to cross the threshold of the counseling center each week to visit my psychologist if I could have said to myself the following ideas which I actively teach my college age clients in Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy:
1. I am okay as a person even though I am aware that I am having a problem with social anxiety.
2. It is bad that I have this anxiety but it is worse if I avoid getting help for it.
3. If someone were to see me going into the counseling center that might be a bit awkward but I could tolerate that and any implied disapproval I may perceive. I can always choose to accept myself even when my peers disapprove of me.
4. I have no guarantee that counseling will help me but if I remain alone with my problems there is a high probability that my small emotional problem will worsen as I struggle with it in silence.
5. Getting help for my emotional and behavioral problems is not a sign of weakness. Getting help is all about helping me to develop my potential, get through school, and feel more comfortable as I face the stressors of school.
6. Taking advantage of professional counseling services is the smart thing to do in the long run even if it is a bit uncomfortable initially. I can stand the awkward feeling of making a call for an appointment.
As demonstrated above REBT teaches college students that they have emotional choices which will help them address their emotional and behavioral problems. Instead of feeling shameful about the existence of such problems young people can choose to feel concerned about these problems if they are self-accepting. This may be difficult to do but it can be done. REBT emphasizes that college students can unconditionally accept themselves “warts and all” and there is great advantage to doing so. When college students accept themselves with the existence of their emotional and behavioral problems they are liberated to actively and responsibly pursue professional assistance so that they can increase the probability of more effectively addressing those problems and fulfilling their academic promise. The four years of college are very challenging and with REBT and the philosophy of self-acceptance college students can more effectively address their problems and achieve their personal potential. Think about it.