How to Get Someone to Attend Therapy
Something to note before reading:
This post applies to relationships between friends, partners, and siblings. It also applies to the relationship between parents and adult children (children over >18). The issue discussed here is made more complex when children are under 18, and may be addressed in a separate post.
Now - On with the show!
Occasionally, I hear clients lament that their partner, parent, sibling, child, or friend “really should go to therapy.” I don’t only hear this from clients, but from friends and loved ones in the “real world.” The question is frequently asked:
“Hey! You’re a therapist. How do I get so-and-so to go to therapy?”
Glad you asked! I will now provide you with a list of things you can do to get someone else to go to therapy.
1. Ask them.
2. See #1. All you can do is ask them.
Ok, that was mean.
It’s just that I don’t think there is much you can do to get another grown adult to attend therapy. So why I am I writing this blog post? Just to throw it in your face?
If I wanted to throw something in your face, I would start with something bouncier or stickier or… something. Certainly not the truth. The truth doesn’t bounce.
I’m writing this post because, if you are wishing a loved one would attend therapy, you’re probably in a lot of pain. You are probably grappling with that exceedingly uncofmortable truth that another person’s mental health is not in your control, ever. Even if you really love that person. Even if you know what’s best. I’m writing this, first and foremost, because I want to acknowledge your pain.
Gah! Why? Why can’t I get someone to attend therapy?
I’m not going to blather on about it, but obviously Free Will is the first reason. (And no, in this case, Determinism is not a good alternative.) The only way philosophically you can circumvent the Free Will problem is to put a gun to someone’s head -- in which case they will probably go to therapy, and at that point will probably need it. However, I don’t recommend this.
The next reason you can’t compel someone to go to therapy is because “success” in therapy is dependent, not only on the skills of the therapist, but on “client factors.” One such factor is the client’s belief in the “ritual.” That is, the client must be willing to believe that therapy with a therapist is a process by which their own mental health could be restored. Secondly, the client must be willing to actively participate in this process of restoration (Frank & Frank, 1991).
Your own belief in the power of therapy cannot swap in for your husband’s lack thereof. Your own belief in the therapeutic ritual does not subsume your adult son’s total disinterest in it. Everyone needs to find their own willingness to change, and their own ritual by which they think change occurs; otherwise, change will not happen. It isn’t just addicts who need to hit their own bottom.
Ok. But what if I “bottom out” quicker than my partner/child/friend does?
Beautiful question! YOU can certainly “bottom out” with another person who refuses to get therapy (or seek help of any kind). You can “bottom out” with the wife who hasn’t processed her childhood abuse, and as a result has a hard time knowing when anyone deserves trust. You can “bottom out” with a son whose last DUI is going to cost him his license or his job, meaning you’re now expected to provide financial support and potentially stay up worrying all night.
A popular advice columnist, Dan Savage, likes to remind us that the only leverage we have over the people we love is our presence in their lives. Although he uses this idea in the context of parent/child relationships, I find it applies to everyone we love - best friends, boyfriends, wives, brothers, daughters. We ultimately choose whether or not to stick around and wait for people to hit their own bottom -- whether that “bottom” is related to addiction, depression, anger, job performance, or codependence.
Both the pain of staying and the pain of leaving are immense. Neither can or should be selected lightly.
What if, for now, I choose the pain of staying?
Many people do. Many people opt to withstand the pain of being a friend, partner, or parent to someone who is not taking care of themselves. For those people, I would say:
I am so sorry. I am so sorry that you are bearing witness to the pain of someone you love. That you are feeling it for them. I am sorry for your powerlessness.
I am proud of you. I am proud of you for acknowledging what is happening for them. I am proud of you for giving up the control you never really had.
I want you to take care of yourself. Attend your own therapy. Develop a spiritual or self-care practice (perhaps one based on gratitude and acceptance). Find the things that fill your heart up, and do those things.
Know your limits. Write them down. Communicate these limits to the person whose pain is out of your control. (This will sound like an ultimatum. That is okay.) And no matter what, stick to the standards you have set for yourself. Be your own partner, parent, or friend.
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[This article does not create a client-counselor relationship. This article is general counseling information and is not to be considered legal or medical advice. Please consult with your mental health professional before you rely on this information.]