Sometimes it is not the person with a mental health diagnosis that needs therapy. Sometimes, it’s a loved one who is struggling the most.

“Why am I in therapy? They’re the ones with the problems!”

I’ve encountered this sentiment countless times during my years as a mental health counselor. Upon first hearing, my natural instinct is to chalk up the person as defensive about why they’re seeing me.

Folks can have numerous misconceptions about therapy, and the stigma surrounding mental health care still looms large in our culture.

Why are they in therapy? Well, it’s usually because that person has a diagnosed or still undiagnosed mental health issues. And isn’t that what therapy is for… to treat mental illness?

Ever wonder if the right person is seeking therapy? I have, many times. I’ve thought to myself during a session, ‘this person doesn’t need therapy … their loved one should be the one meeting with me.’

Having a Mental Health Disorder Does Not Mean You Need to Be in Therapy

I believe everybody can benefit from therapy. I am a champion of normalizing therapy, mental health struggles, and destigmatizing those who seek out help.

Listen up, because this next point is extremely important.Having a mental health disorder doesn’t mean someone NEEDS therapy.

They certainly can benefit from working with a mental health professional, but so could can everyone. There are many people diagnosed with depression, anxiety, or other recognized mental health disorders that are coping just fine with their daily challenges and struggles.

“Not having a mental illness doesn’t mean you’re well.”

Mental illness doesn’t automatically make a person defective, inadequate, or helpless.

And not having a mental illness doesn’t protect you from being petty, insecure, paranoid, controlling, passive-aggressive, hostile, hold grudges, unforgiving, resentful, violent and aggressive, delusional, emotionally charged, etc., etc., etc.

Sometimes, Family Members Are the Ones Struggling

Loving a family member who has mental health disorder can be difficult. It can be confusing, stressful, and emotionally draining. Sometimes, a family member needs help just as much or more than the person with a diagnosed mental illness.

Support groups like Al-Anon and Nar-Anon were founded on the realization that addiction affects the entire family system. Spouses, children, parents, and loved ones need their own place and space to process, learn, grow, and heal.

So why are so many family members resistant to therapy for themselves? Why aren’t they the ones seeking out therapy?

Well, for starters, our healthcare systems do a poor job of coverage for family members which limits financial resources for care.

But there must be more reasons than just that one… Here are two common reasons why many loved ones believe they don’t need therapy.

Two Reasons Why Many Loved Ones Believe They Don’t Need Therapy:

Two reasons why many loved ones believe they don't need therapy, or believe family therapy is not necessary.

1. It’s Easy to Blame Someone Else’s Mental Health Problems for Your Own Problems

Everybody has problems. Everybody has struggles. And it can be convenient and easy to absolve yourself from working on your own problems when someone in your family has a diagnosed mental illness.

Just because you don’t have a mental illness doesn’t mean you are well. And, mental illness is not to blame for all the ills and struggles.

Anybody can be petty, insecure, paranoid, controlling, passive-aggressive, hostile, unforgiving, resentful, and emotionally volatile.

2. It’s Easy to Sacrifice Your Own Well-Being to Help Others

Parents are programmed to be caretakers and protectors of their children. It’s quite common for that characteristic to go into hyperdrive when your child suffers from a mental health disorder.

The love and care they provide to their children are admirable… but that doesn’t make them effective parents or help their child’s struggles. Sometimes, parents can exacerbate a loved one’s struggles.

Caring for Yourself Helps Everyone

In a recent study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Childhood and Adolescent Psychiatry, researchers found that offering treatment to parents of kids with anxiety disorders was just as helpful as treating the kids themselves—by helping them cool it on certain behaviors. 

“Children naturally rely on parents when they are feeling scared and parents naturally want to protect their children and to help them to be safe and to feel good,” says Eli Lebowitz, the associate director of the Anxiety and Mood Disorders Program at the Yale Child Study Center and first author of the study

“There are really endless possible examples,” Lebowitz says. “Every child anxiety symptom is likely to have a matching accommodation on the part of the parents. These accommodations are well-intentioned but tend to lead to more anxiety over time and to greater impairment for both the child and the family overall.”

But what if they don’t have anxiety? How can therapy help other families?

5 Reasons Family Members Use Therapy

Here are some of the most common issues I come across in therapy where the source of the conflict is not the client with a diagnosis but a parent or spouse.

Why do family members seek therapy?

1. Lack of Boundaries

Healthy relationships allow for a reasonable balance between togetherness and separateness. I often encounter family members that need to know everything about their loved one and struggled with trust.

Control freaks and codependents also lack respect for other people’s boundaries. They become enmeshed into the lives of others.

2. External Locus of Control

Parents and spouses regularly scapegoat the mentally ill for their own inappropriate behaviors. “I wouldn’t yell or punch holes in the wall if you’d just listen to me.” And so it goes.

It’s the perfect trap; when someone’s behavior is a direct result of another’s behavior. You don’t like my behavior? Then you change. Textbook external locus of control.

3. Unrealistic Expectations and Pressure

I know a family where the kid cannot have a single assignment missing or any zeros in any class. If one thing is missing, he loses his car and his phone for the week.

We are living in a time where we’re expecting perfection from young people to the point where they constantly live in fear of failure.

Having an anxiety disorder is bad enough as it is. Imagine if you also have a spouse or parent that thrusts unrealistic expectations on you as well. Talk about a double dose of stress.

4. Personalization

Personalization is a type of cognitive distortion where a person believes that everything others do or say is some kind of direct, personal reaction to them.

To all those folks who suffer from a psychiatric disorder … ever have a loved one say, “why are you doing this to me?”

5. Undiagnosed Mental Disorder of Their Own

Sometimes it’s known in the family but not spoken about. Dad has a drinking problem. Mom’s really the anxious one. My husband has a temper issue, I think he might be depressed.

Getting family into therapy can be the starting point to talk about things people aren’t talking about.

4 Goals for Family Members in Therapy

Most family members are resistant to meeting with me because they’re afraid we’ll play the ‘Blame Game.’ Nobody wants to pay money to meet a complete stranger to be told that what they’re doing is bad and or harmful.

So, what do family members gain by speaking with a therapist?

What are the goals of family therapy?

1. They Gain Support

Meeting and speaking with someone allows family members to share their story, vocal their pain and struggles, and receive non-judgmental support.

2. Develop Healthy Attitudes and Behaviors for Their Own Lives

The focus is growth and effectiveness. If something’s not working, therapy is a place where new tools and strategies can be discovered.

3. They Open Themselves Up to Non-Judgmental Feedback

It’s imperative that no one lives in a bubble. We can all be prisoners of our own biases and blindspots. It takes courage, maturity, and humility to give someone permission to provide honest and critical feedback to us.

4. They Develop an Internal Locus of Control

The more we focus on our own lives, the more we take responsibility for our life. Focus on what you can control and change.

Don’t play the martyr or the victim. Stop blaming. Stop blaming yourself and stop blaming your loved one for things they are not responsible for.

Click here for more content by Jonathan Hetterly, LPC!

Jonathan Hetterly, LPC
Jonathan Hetterly is a licensed professional counselor. He specializes in helping teen and young adult men navigate the challenges they face in life. Jonathan is also a writer and his articles are regularly featured on PsychBytes.com and ShrinkTank.com. He has contributed material to several books that explore the intersection of pop culture and psychology, including The Walking Dead Psychology, Star Wars Psychology, and Game of Thrones Psychology.

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