So what do you do when you truly believe that someone in your life could benefit from professional counseling? Maybe they’re repeating harmful patterns that have you concerned, maybe they’re constantly stressed out, or maybe, just maybe, they are using you as their therapist and frankly, this is all a little above your pay grade.
It’s hard to have this conversation without hurting your loved one’s feelings. And deciding to seek help is a major, deeply personal decision. Should you just butt out of it? Or is there a way to broach the subject tactfully?
Consider your motivation
Before having this heavy conversation with someone in your life, it’s important to reflect on your own wants and needs in this situation.
“The first thing that’s important to consider is asking yourself [is], ‘What’s my goal here?’ ‘Am I encouraging them to go therapy because of how it will impact me?’” says marriage and family therapist Sarah Epstein, LMFT.
Is it your boyfriend that you think needs to communicate better? Is it your cousin struggling with coming out? Is it your BFF excessively drinking at Sunday brunches? Whatever your motivation for bringing up the idea of therapy, Epstein points out that each “conversation is going to be different.”
Ask yourself if they know something’s wrong
Another key thing to keep in mind before asking someone in your life to consider therapy is if they’re already aware of the concerns you’re bringing up. Have they acknowledged that they have a hard time expressing their emotions, or that their drinking is getting out of control, for instance? If not, they might feel “defensive and cornered” by the very suggestion of getting help, Epstein says. She adds that people who are “drafted,” as it were, by someone in their life to go to therapy feel as though they didn’t have much of a say in the matter and, ultimately, have a much harder time connecting with the process.
Be mindful of your wording
How you frame therapy and the language you use is critical. For instance, rather than saying “there’s something wrong with you,” marriage and family therapist Ariel Hirsch, MA, LMFT explains that you can instead tell the person, “I’m worried about you and the negative impact [the issue at hand] might be having on your life.” She says that you must “come from a place of care by asking what they need, not telling them.”
Also avoid pathologizing terms (like “codependence” or “narcissism”), or trying to diagnose someone, Epstein says. “Don’t use the language of therapy against them,” she says. “That’s not going to help.” By weaponizing therapy, as it were, Epstein says it tells the person there is something wrong with them.
The same goes for threatening, coercing, or having ultimatums when it comes to someone else’s potential therapy. This is especially important to keep in mind for couples to make sure they are on the same page and see therapy as a united support system, not a magic bullet remedy for ongoing problems
Focus on the potential benefits
Rather than speaking about it in terms of their deficit (maybe they seem too anxious about how their kids are doing in school, or maybe they’re struggling with grieving a significant loss), Epstein says the best course of action is to explain to them “what they might gain or what they might enjoy about the process” of therapy. Hirsch adds that therapy should be discussed more as a way to gain another person who’s on your team. “Therapy is a support system, not a mechanism for change,” she explains.
For someone who has never tried therapy before, it can seem overwhelming and even a little bit scary. But Epstein says you can remind the person that therapy is a “place where you can let your guard down, take a pause in your day and help figure out what you need for your own mental health toolbox.”
Talk about your own experiences
Another way to bring therapy into the conversation is to share your own positive experiences with therapy, if you’ve had them. “Talking about therapy in a casual way can really destigmatize it and normalize it,” Hirsch says. You can specifically name the ways it helped you in your own mental health journey.
Offer to help them start the process
If someone seems receptive to the idea of trying therapy, keep in mind that getting started can often be a daunting task in and of itself. Offer to provide extra help in finding the right therapist, including, Epstein says, asking your own therapist for recommendations or referrals.
From CBT to EMDR, there’s a vast array of therapies out there, and it’s an important step to figure out which one best suits an individual. Someone’s race, gender, orientation, age and/or religious affiliation can also be key factors to take into account when helping them find a therapist, as it can be imperative for someone to be seen by a culturally sensitive provider. This will be especially helpful if someone has tried therapy before, and the type of therapy or the therapist didn’t suit their wants or needs.
If they are interested but hesitant (or they are simply waiting to see the right therapist through their insurance provider), there are other mental health stepping stones that can be useful, like therapy-based podcasts, books or apps can help in the meantime.
Of course, if they don’t feel ready or simply don’t want to try therapy at all, Epstein cautions, “at the end of the day you can’t force someone to do something they’re not ready to do.”
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