When you’re a therapist, psychologist, or even an undergrad studying psychology, you will likely run into the assumption that you can fix everyone’s problems. In episode 263, I received a question from a listener who is studying psychology whilst trying to navigate certain family expectations that they should be able to make their family mentally well because of this. In this post, I take a stance on this viewpoint and describe why this should never be the case and why your family’s mental health is not your responsibility.
I really hope to hear about your opinions on an issue that bothers me. Since I started studying Psychology in undergrad, my family have always been excited and hopeful about the outcome of my studies. They have an expectation that because I pursue a career in improving mental health, I should be able to first treat my family members and make sure they are mentally healthy. They told me on multiple occasions that if I can’t even make sure my family members are mentally well, I am considered incompetent in my profession, and pursuing a career in psychology would be useless.
I love my family and nothing makes me happier than seeing them happy and healthy. However, I find treating family members extremely difficult due to the lack of objectiveness. What are your suggestions to how to communicate with them about treating family members, and how I can help family members with mental illnesses?
I appreciate any advice. Thank you so much for your time!
Thank you for the question. Oh man. This is such a common one that I can definitely empathize with. This is actually a pretty simple answer – they are absolutely 100% wrong. Being a psychologist or therapist does NOT mean that you can treat your family members. That’s simply not how it works.
It’s actually kind of the opposite a lot of times for exactly the reason that you said. You are not objective. You are part of the system that you are being asked to fix. There is also a chance that the change that needs to occur in the system is not something that your family would want to hear from you. You can have some ideas about issues going on with family members and you might offer help, but you cannot be their therapist. To me, it’s similar to being in business with family members. Like even when things are supposed to be impersonal business decisions, they become personal just by nature of the fact that you are family. It’s like that but dialed up even further.
A therapists relationship
The therapeutic relationship is unique and it’s powerful because it’s different than other relationships. It’s not a friendship, it’s not a familial relationship, and it’s not a romantic relationship. At the same time, ideally, a therapist is someone that you can be emotionally vulnerable with and build a deep level of trust and respect with. The fact that you can do that without all the expectations that come with being a family member etc. is exactly why there is so much potential for healing.
Please do NOT internalize what they have told you. Being unable to “fix” your family members is not a sign that you are not a good therapist. It’s expected. That’s just not how things work. The dynamics and the relationship are inherently different with family. Plus they aren’t paying you. It’s completely different. The only thing that changes as you begin to accumulate more knowledge and experience in the field is that you may have a better understanding of why things are playing out. That doesn’t mean that you can reach in there and change stuff for them.
You are uniquely placed
Now, this doesn’t mean that you can’t do anything either. I do think that there are some interesting opportunities that can arise because of your unique placement within the family. There is no way that I can “fix” my wife or my parents or anyone else in the family for that matter. And I make that clear. But I have certainly been able to be a better partner for my wife given my experience with anxiety, bipolar etc. I have definitely been able to give my parents some perspective and feedback about situations in their lives. And I have family members with severe mental illness that I have been able to give information and push toward resources in an effective way. I think it’s a dance that you need to learn and a delicate balance. At this stage in your learning, I would default to protecting yourself and your boundaries closely. Like you aren’t even a clinician yet. You’re learning about the field and thinking about possibly becoming a clinician. No offense, but you don’t know what you’re doing! That’s like telling a pre-med student that they should be able to help their family’s medical problems. Nope. Not how it works.
Set your boundaries
Before I wrap up this answer, I also want to take serious issue on your behalf of being accused of not being competent as a helper/potential therapist. It’s not kind of your family to say that. I don’t know much about your background, but I wonder if there might be some defensiveness coming out here. I only say this because it feels somewhat familiar to me personally, but are some of your family members the type to say “Oh you think you’re so smart. You must think you’re better than all of us?” If so, that’s on them and you don’t need to tolerate being treated that way. Boundaries are something that will serve you well in life in general, and especially if you decide to get into this field. Perhaps now is the time to start learning how to negotiate and enforce those boundaries if you need to.
All that said, I just want to reassure you that you are doing absolutely nothing wrong. Therapists and psychologists cannot play those roles in their own families. That’s not how it works and your family members that say this are simply wrong.
You can listen to this on Episode 263 of the podcast!
Thank you for the great question!
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