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Beware of Becoming the Family Therapist


I’ve blogged about being the problem in your family and now want to talk to those of you who’ve taken on the role of family therapist. I don’t mean you went out and got yourself a degree in psychology, but that you’ve volunteered for the thankless job of solving the problems of everyone in your family. In truth, you may think you’ve volunteered, but my guess is that you’ve been recruited in subtle ways and are actually sacrificing your own well-being in order to fix the lives of your parents and siblings.

When You Become the Family Therapist: Avoid these amateur psychology mistakes when tending to loved ones’ emotional needs by Kelsey Ogletree (AARP Bulletin 11/20, pp 36-39) explains the downside this situation poses. When you’re constantly trying to put out family fires—Cousin George’s drinking, Grandma’s depression, your parents contemplating divorce, or your sister self-harming—you run the risk of exposing yourself to compassion fatigue which is something that bona fide therapists also watch out for. And compassion fatigue can lead to depression, frustration, and feelings of despair.

Many dysregulated eaters seek food for comfort because they feel overwhelmed with family problems. Some are crises such as Dad needing emergency surgery and Mom being left alone, and others are dysfunctional patterns which have been going on for decades such as your alcoholic, jobless brother still sponging off your parents. Although you may see value in the role of occasionally helping family members sort out their lives—and actually be doing some good—it’s not healthy to get into the habit of being the go-to person when relatives run into difficulties. It’s too stressful and once you get stuck in the role, it’s hard to get out, especially when you want to turn the tables and get some support or advice for yourself.

In your amateur therapist role, you’re also endangering others because your desire to help likely exceeds your competence to do so. Here are Ogletree’s tips if you insist on playing therapist: talk less and listen more, don’t jump in as the fixer, seek face to face conversations (in person, online), get comfortable with silence and give people time to consider what you’re saying, be curious rather than judgmental. And don’t talk at them. 

Moreover, if problems are severe and ongoing, family members would probably prefer to rely on you as their savior rather than seek professional help. That way they can avoid change, save money, and pretend their problems aren’t as serious as they likely are. By playing therapist, you often do real harm and the opposite of what you intend by preventing them from getting the help they need. Better to mind your own business.