Why Your Therapist Wants to Talk About Your Family, By Kayla Walker, LMFT
So, you've come to your first therapy appointment, ready to talk about the problems in your life, and after listening for a few minutes, your therapist begins to ask about your family. But you're not there to talk about your family; you're there to talk to about your problem – your job stress, anxiety, depression, trauma, etc. Why does your therapist want to talk about your family?
Well, as it turns out, learning about your family tells your therapist a lot about you, your life, and your problems. None of us exists in a vacuum; our lives are a series of interconnected relationships that both influence and are influenced by us. With family members, friends, classmates or colleagues, teachers, bosses, and communities, it's impossible to go through a single day, let alone our whole lives, without reacting emotionally to someone we are in contact with. For example: when my toddler has a tantrum, I feel irritated – my mood has just been influenced by my relationship with another human being. Understanding these influences is an important part of creating a more holistic picture of any problem.
One major influence these relationships have is on your level of social support; that is, the quantity and quality of support you have from relationships in your life. We all feel supported by people we can easily talk with or get help from; having those kinds of relationships with family members gives you a built-in system of emotional support and resources to draw from as you work through your problem. On the other hand, having no support from family can leave anyone feeling lonely, dependent on people they don't know well, or unable to adequately deal with even minor problems. Understanding your social support system is an essential part of therapy; a therapist needs to know how your family relationships affect your social support (whether they are a source of it or a detriment to it) in order to tailor your treatment to your life circumstances. For example, it wouldn't be helpful for a therapist to suggest that you lean on your mother for support if you have a difficult or critical relationship with her.
Your family relationships also influence how you relate to the problems in your life. We all learn how to relate to others by relating first to our family members. Our first interactions as a child are with our parents – it's in relationship with them that we learn how to cope with disappointment, how to express feelings, and how to deal with conflict. From the sum of these interactions throughout our lives, we develop patterns of relating to people, emotions, and problems, and we tend to carry those patterns into other relationships throughout our lives. For example, if you grew up in a family that avoided or suppressed conflict or strong feelings, you may tend to be uncomfortable with conflict or confrontation. This can not only have a big impact on how you handle conflict in your friendships and romantic relationships, but also on how you handle problems at work or school. It can also affect how you relate to yourself and your own emotions – specifically how comfortable you feel with your own emotions. If you tend to avoid hard situations – and difficult or negative emotions – you may find yourself constantly running from tricky situations or coping with problems in maladaptive ways to escape from uncomfortable feelings.
Likewise, the roles we play in our family relationships tend to influence the expectations we have for ourselves and others. These expectations lay the ground work for how we think about ourselves and relate to the world around us. A “good daughter” who always does what her parents expect and is always praised for her successes may find herself expecting or working for praise from teachers, friends, and bosses. She may notice that she feels anxious to meet the expectations of others, and in turn pushes herself to do what others need, rather than what may be healthy for herself. This is just one example of a huge source of stress or anxiety that feels very individual, but is actually directly influenced by the experience of family relationships.
Finally, learning about your family relationships can help your therapist understand more about how your problem(s) affects the different aspects of your life. Often, as the problems you face influence how you relate to others, others begin to react to you in new ways, creating vicious cycles thatexacerbate or completely overwhelm the original problem. For example, if stress at work leaves you exhausted and irritable at the end of the day, you may start to be irritable or withdrawn from your spouse. Then, when your spouse reacts to your irritation and withdrawal by shutting down or distancing from you, you may feel unsupported, which then only exacerbates the stress you feel at work. Even though the problem didn't start at home, it is exacerbated by a family relationship, and the dynamic creates a cycle that can be hard to stop. In this case, finding ways to help you and your spouse reconnect may be one key step in lowering your overall stress. So, learning more about how your family members interact with you can give your therapist insight into how to help you solve your problem(s).
So, as you can see, talking about your family gives your therapist invaluable information about your life, your support system, the patterns or roles you play out in relationships, and how those dynamics impact the problems you face. This information forms a more holistic picture of your life, which can help your therapist create a plan to help you that is tailored to your unique circumstances, strengths, and resources.
Kayla Walker is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist at the Therapeutic Center for Anxiety and Trauma. She focuses on working with young women struggling with anxiety, life changes, trauma, and food/body issues. She is currently accepting new clients. If you would like more information or to schedule an appointment, you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619-272-6858 x708.