The Therapy Threat: Counselling Ultimatums and Why They Suck

Today I’d like to argue the point that when engaging in counselling is, or feels forced, it’s rarely a good thing.

What is a Counselling Ultimatum?

Unlike simply pressuring another person to see a counsellor (which is itself is seldom pleasant for anyone), an ultimatum has the added element of a consequence if the person of concern will not seek or engage in counselling help.

With counselling ultimatums we often envisage a scenario where a person says to their spouse, “If you don’t get help, I’m going to leave you.” While this may be ‘classic,’ let’s look at a few other scenarios.

As is with most ultimatums, it’s typical that someone close to you insists that you get professional help or else certain consequences will occur such as:

  • This relationship will end
  • You can’t live here
  • The money will stop

Sometimes the ultimatum comes from someone outside of your personal circle, as is the case with mandatory counselling, ordered by a judge or written up as a condition of employment, in order to have certain privileges returned or maintained (e.g. custody, contact with certain persons, return to a job, a parole condition, etc). In the counselling field, these sort of situations are referred to as mandated counselling.

Why Forcing Counselling Is Not a Good Idea

Counselling Becomes Associated With Coercion

Almost any therapist will tell you that counselling works best when the client is invested in the process: they have sought counselling voluntarily and are open to the process, even if they don’t know much about it.

While not always a necessary reflection of motivation, such clients may have done the research to find their counsellor themselves and in the case of private counselling, be paying for their own counselling (or finding a counsellor that they have coverage for under their extended health plan, if they have one).

Counselling Is No Longer Internally Motivated

Related to the above, when the reasons for counselling are external rather than internally motivated, long-term change, as a result of counselling, is unlikely. Some therapists refer to clients who are in this position as “counselling observers” rather than “counselling participants.” To clients, external motivation can feel like “going through the motions” or “fulfilling a brief.” There is a lack of connection to the process.

We Lead With Self-Protection

When something is not approached voluntarily, we shut down internally into self-protection mode. This does not bode well for the counselling process because this is not how counselling works.

More specifically, a key element of counselling is opening up emotionally and discussing the life experiences that are contributing to the reason(s) for counselling. While areas of concern are typically identified and elaborated on, participating in counselling can also be extremely uplifting and empowering. For the latter to occur, however, an ongoing state of openness in the counselling room and trust and rapport with the counsellor over time is usually necessary.

Counselling Can Be An Arm of Systemic Oppression

Mandating counselling can be especially harmful for marginalized people who have been historically harmed, and continue to be oppressed by social forces and systems. When counselling becomes an agent for control, harm is perpetuated and this can be especially sinister because it is occurring under the veil of “help.”

Counselling Is Not a Good Fit For Everyone

Back in the day when I wrote about this topic, it was one of my most popular articles. There is a tendency for therapists and other helping professionals to believe that counselling is pretty hot stuff and that most people would benefit from participating in therapy. This is also an increasingly prominent belief in popular culture, particularly as we (thankfully) move away from the social stigmatization of counselling. While I believe that counselling is really great and has permeated so much of my life, both as a participant and as a counsellor, many people have significant reasons not to do it.

Counselling Can Be Dangerous

This might sound like an oxymoron but it’s not. When people are forced into counselling or pressured to talk about things that they are not ready to discuss, the consequences can be very harmful and significant and can include: anxiety, panic attacks, overwhelm, decreased coping, depressed mood, an increase in substance use or compulsive behaviour, bingeing, removing oneself from participation in life tasks, or, if the distress is intolerable, suicide.

Much of the time these outcomes depend on what the counselling client is struggling with, the severity of the issues, and whether the counsellor has the skill and training to recognize that the counselling being received is not voluntary and not to proceed as if it were. Remember, counselling is unregulated in British Columbia and it is up the public to identify counsellors who are qualified and safe.

Counselling Can Complicate Things

Sometimes it’s not that we’re not against counselling, but rather that engaging in it at this moment may make other aspects of our life more difficult. Sometimes, when counselling is ill-timed, it might force dealing with an issue at an inconvenient time that could cause other areas of one’s life to suffer. Further, doing so might also shine a light on things in a client’s life that they are not ready to tackle, prompting “I don’t want to go there,” thoughts or other fears.

Forced Counselling Can Damage Relationships

When one feels pressured by an important person in one’s life to attend counselling, resentment can build and can negatively affect the relationship with that person because we do not feel respected, or our boundaries, honoured.

A Few Caveats

An ultimatum is not the same as setting boundaries. Boundaries deal with needs and standards, felt internally and/or expressed interpersonally and do not involve controlling or manipulating others. For example, you may choose that abusive individuals are not welcome to live in your house and you ask them to move out (boundary) vs. insisting that they seek counselling (ultimatum) in order to live in the house.

Sometimes “forced entry” into counselling can work out but it doesn’t always come in the form of an ultimatum. For example, when I was a teenager, I was told that I had to attend a group program for teenagers with alcoholic parent(s) because it was perceived that I was not coping well at all with my home situation, which was actually correct. Everything in me did not want to go and I literally felt forced to, because I was terrified to seek help. However, this group turned out to be both life-saving and one of the most eye-opening and connective experiences of my life, becoming a pivotal milestone on my road to becoming a counsellor. I have zero regrets.

And…if you’re struggling with why someone close in your life won’t get counselling, I encourage you to reach out to a counsellor yourself, to talk it out.

Please take care, everyone.