One of the most difficult things to experience is the suffering of a loved one. Be it a child, a father or mother, a grand parent or a close friend: no healthy person wishes to see someone close suffering. Reaching out to help someone else is an essential part of being human, and being humane. But sometimes it feels as if nothing we do is helpful to the other, and the pain we witness seems to continue. Under those circumstances it is often useful to find a professional outsider who can step in. However, there are a few things you need to remember.
Limitations to Counselling
For the process of counselling to be successful it is important that the client embraces it voluntarily. Nobody can adjust, grow, or change simply becomes other people desire it, demand it, or require it. If the client him- or herself is unwilling to adjust course, there is no professional who can (or should!) force anything. This isn’t only because it would be in breach of the ethics codes of each and every organisation of professional psychologists I know of, but – more importantly: because it wouldn’t work.
If, for example, a spouse were to come to counselling because the partner demands it, than a cloud of coercion or insistence would taint the work from the beginning. It is likely that this person would feel strong resistance to talk about important things and will lack the willingness to commit to the honesty, openness, vulnerability and perseverance that are key to counselling and therapy. If a person comes in, saying “I’m here because my XYZ demands it, otherwise I’ll lose my marriage/job/membership/inheritance/etcetera”, then the process of counselling starts from negative point.
There are, of course, exceptions. When somebody has become a danger to themselves or to others, when people are no longer able to take care of their basic needs because of mental afflictions, then psychiatric hospitalisation might be needed. This is something you might want to discuss with your personal health care provider, or with official institutions.
Change, growth, adjustment – all of these have to eventually be born from within, nourished from within, and persevered from within. It is the client him- or herself who would have to be able to foresee the benefits of counselling. And it is the client him- or herself who needs to “own” his or her own engagement with the entire path of counselling, each and every session again. In a fertile counselling environment, it is the client who “owns” the process – they highlight the difficulties on their path, they choose their own future, they tackle their own hurdles. A counsellor, just as much as loved ones, will stimulate and support, challenge and comfort. But it is only the client who can decide on the path ahead, and to adjust where he or she wants to, and can adjust.
Why a Loved One Might Be Reluctant
There are numerous reasons why people might feel reserved about counselling or therapy. Some feel that they don’t need an outsider, and that they themselves are capable enough to find resolutions. Others might think that seeing a counsellor might make them appear “weak” or “mad” in the eyes of others (peers, friends, colleagues, family members, etcetera). It could be that cultural or religious viewpoints hinder the willingness to find psychological support from professionals. There could also be a reluctance for fear of change. As someone once said: “It sometimes seems I’d rather stay in this place of pain that I know so well, than to do what it takes to move to happiness: I’d suddenly be in a place I don’t know…”
Whatever the reason may be: it is important to respect these thoughts, beliefs and sentiments. They form an important part of the daily experience of your loved one. Trying to understand their point of view is one of the key aspects to counselling. Arguing or debating their viewpoints could easily be seen as a sign of coercion. Trying to see the world through their eyes is an act of respect, and curiosity. Showing that type of respect is often much more of a stimulus for someone to find professional assistance, than arguing and insistence.
Nobody wants to be thought of as “the one who causes all problems”, or “so you think there’s something wrong with me?”
If you’re seeking counselling for a partner because of ongoing issues in your relationship, which appear to be solely coming from your partner, then first consider this quote by Ram Das:
I can do nothing for you but work on myself…you can do nothing for me but work on yourself!
When is it Time to Seek Help?
The clearest answer to that question is: when a loved one explicitly asks for it. However, people sometimes slide slowly, over longer stretches of time, into mental places and into situations where they are not aware they would benefit from professional help. Some indicators for when somebody might need help are: prolonged periods of traumatic stress, anxiety, depression, abuse of substances and suicidal ideation. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), some signs to look out for are:
- Marked changes in mood, such as irritability, anger, anxiety, or sadness
- Decline in performance at work or school
- Changes in weight and appearance, including negligence of personal hygiene
- Disturbances in sleep, either oversleeping or insomnia
- Withdrawal from social relationships and activities
If you feel someone close to you might be suffering, then you could consider giving them this helpful online test. Or bring this article on the Huffington Post to their attention. And this article might be interesting if you are specifically exploring counselling for a male relative or friend.
Seeing a loved one suffer can be very painful. It can unleash a whole set of emotions in us as bystanders, relatives and friends. Feelings of powerlessness, anger, despair, fear, shame and guilt are but some of those emotions. If you are struggling with the any of these it would be worthwhile to not only address the needs of your loved one, but also your own responses to the situation.
Our loved ones are helped by our own grounding, and our ability to empathise. But for us to be able to do that, we need to take care of ourselves. As Jack Kornfield said:
If your compassion doesn’t include yourself, it is incomplete.