People seek therapy for many reasons. If you’re reading this, it's a strong possibility you yourself have been in therapy at some point in your life. Some come to explore existential thoughts and feelings; some to address feelings of depression, anxiety or some other specific issue such as an eating disorder; some to get help in processing a specific trauma, a turning point in one’s life. Some clients come to therapy already feeling defeated because they need “help,” but I applaud my clients for choosing therapy for themselves, reminding them that seeking help is making a healthy choice to change. Their decision to work on themselves, to walk through my door, is already half the work in therapy. If you cut yourself and need stitches, you would probably go to the doctor and not shame yourself for it. Why should seeking professional help for dealing with the complexities of life be any different?
However, what about your father’s depression, your friend’s angry outbursts, your partner’s destructive drinking habits? It can be painful to witness a loved one struggling with his or her own painful experiences and not know what to do to help. It is likely you have been in a relationship with someone with whom you have either thought or suggested seek counseling or has suggested or thought the same for you. Almost always, suggesting someone seek help is because of our care and concern for the other person’s well-being, but sometimes, the behavior of a loved one could actually be impacting the relationship and it can be difficult to see a way to move forward without more serious intervention, like professional counseling.
Here are some tips on knowing when and how to encourage a loved one to seek help.
Awareness and empathy: If you notice a change in someone’s behavior or emotional state that is causing that individual difficulty in managing life, work or school and especially relationships, an appropriate first step is to simply check in. Ask how he or she is doing, be genuine and empathetic and be open to listening if your loved one is willing to share.
Encourage healthy patterns: If the person has some awareness of what might be causing the change in feelings or behavior, encourage them to change something, including seeking professional counseling. If the person lacks awareness or is defensive about your concern, you can only reiterate your feelings for his or her well-being. Pushing your own agenda on someone else is usually not successful.
Create boundaries: If the behavior of your family member or friend is negatively affecting the relationship you have, and she or he refuses to change something that is causing the difficulty, it might be time to evaluate how far you are willing to let your boundaries be pushed. Dynamics in relationships can often be broken down into choices. Your own boundaries may require that you make choices for yourself, such as distancing from the relationship. This is not an ultimatum unless you say, “Get help or else…” What you can do is point out the other person’s behavior as being problematic for you, and acknowledge their choice to not try to change it or do something different. If the only thing you have control of are your own choices, then you might follow up with what choice you need to make for yourself. Sometimes this can be enough of a wake up call to help someone see how her or his behavior affects others.
While I have had clients who came to therapy because a family member or friend suggested it, or even “required” it, ultimately someone’s decision to seek treatment from a professional has to be just that, a conscious and willing decision. Those that believe they can benefit from help are the ones who usually receive help. As a therapist, I can offer my insights and tools, but receiving is what happens on the other end of the offering, when one is willing to open his or her heart and mind and allow oneself to become a part of the process of one’s own change. The therapy journey, and really any movement toward real and lasting change, is such a deeply personal choice. Pressuring someone to seek help is rarely ever effective. Encouraging someone to try something different is a much more empathetic route. If someone wants something new and different, one must be willing to do something new and different.