When Loved Ones Are a Focus in Counselling

Some time ago I wrote an article about disclosure in counselling and how to find the balance that’s right for you.

As you can imagine, one of the most common reasons for attending counselling is for help with our relationships, often our most important ones. Of course, there are other counselling options available, such as couples and family counselling, however, others in your circle may not to be interested in these options, leaving us with the decision to either pursue counselling independently, or not at all.

If we’ve decided to go ahead with individual counselling, we may feel anxious about opening up, perhaps even making comments to our therapist like:

“I don’t want you to think badly of them.”

“They are a good person even if they do X”

“They’re not always like this.”

“I feel badly talking about them.”

“I’m worried that you will tell me to leave them or cut myself off from them.”

Let’s look at some of the fears behind discussing loved ones in counselling.

Fear of Betrayal

If you’re like me and have experienced childhood trauma, opening up to anyone outside of the family, about the family, can feel like an enormous betrayal to family members and the family system as a whole. Abuse and dysfunction relies on secrecy to be maintained, and shame ensures that the chance of disclosure is reduced.

And if your childhood has not included significant adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), we face considerable cultural messaging and pressure around upholding the sanctity of the family, even when contact with family members is problematic.

And we may have similar fears about opening up if we consider our partner a ‘soul mate’ or if we have a friend that we relate to as a confidante.

Alternative view:
Opening up in counselling is not an exercise in character assassination, unless a deliberate choice is made to head in this direction. Counsellors often help their clients open up in therapy in order to increase understanding of troublesome situations, widen perspective, promote self-reflection and identify areas for change, all within a safe, understanding counselling milieu.

Fear of Judgement

A big factor that can keep people from pursuing counselling is the fear of being judged by their counsellor. And when you think about it, it’s both terrifying and ironic to think that a counsellor—someone you have chosen to help you—could judge or shame you for the relationships that you’re seeking assistance with.

On a related note, we may also be fearing a counsellor’s judgement of our loved one—a particularly painful thought if we love or care for that person deeply, even if their actions towards you are not healthy.

Alternative view:
I’d be lying if I said that counsellors never judge (we’re human) LINK but it’s my opinion that most therapists will strive to create a counselling environment where you feel safe and comfortable sharing. Judging others shuts them down, which is the antithesis of what counselling is about. There may be times when a counsellor expresses concern about your situation, however this should be coming from a place of care and be in clients’ interest (e.g. growth, shifting perspectives, providing information, etc.).

Fear of Self-Judgement

Many of us have a serious issue with self-judgement and we may worry that if we talk about things in detail, our sense of self-disgust will no longer be containable and we will not be able to recover emotionally.

Alternative view:
Most times the opposite is actually true in therapy. When we open up, and are met with our therapist’s kindness and care, our feelings about ourselves improve. This can, however, take time. I address this issue again in the tips below.

Fear of the Complaintfest

This is a fear sometimes promoted in the media, and at other times stoked by others. This may include people that may have discouraged you from getting counselling, or even those who are concerning you most. Underlying this fear of complaining is often a concern that counselling is unproductive.

Alternative view:
Counselling, at its heart, should be a meaningful experience. Sometimes “complaints” are like the outer layer of an onion and represent a discharge of energy or frustration that, once processed, facilitates the settling of mind and body so that the deeper issues which brought us into therapy can next be discussed.

Fear of Losing Control/Fear of Change

One we have named or expressed something, it can be hard to ignore and for some of us, this can spark fears that we will feel feelings that we can’t handle, or that we must now take immediate action to change the situation.

Facing things or making changes can be especially alarming if we feel that we’re not ready and when the stakes are high—as is the case when key relationships are involved. We may also feel a sense of pressure to act if we have now identified specific therapeutic options, or believe that the counsellor is trying to tell us what to do.

Alternative view:
Yes, we can’t “control” our information once we open up. Further, it’s common—but not guaranteed—to go through a rough patch where things feel topsy-turvy, as internalized thoughts and feelings are expressed in counselling. However, while this can represent an important, and very normal part of the change process, counsellors should be sensitive to this and not tell you what to do, or intervene themselves, unless there is a serious threat to your safety or to that of others.

Also, it is important to remember that you choose what you wish to discuss in counselling.

Fear of the Loss of Confidentiality or Personal Privacy

We may worry that what we may tell our therapist may not be confidential, especially if we are living in a small town, or we question whether therapists really do abide by such rules. In the current social climate, where many of us are home considerably more than in pre-pandemic times, we may be concerned that our counselling session will be overheard by someone who may also be working and living alongside us.

Alternative view:
If you have chosen a counsellor that is regulated or registered by a reputable professional body, they are bound by the rules of confidentiality and their code of ethics should be available online. If the therapist has broken confidentiality for non-life threatening or non-safety reasons, you have a right to file a complaint with their professional college or association. This is a key reason for why choosing a registered or regulated counselling professional is important.

If you have concerns about your ability to have a private session, talk to your therapist beforehand for tips about how to improve your privacy at home and ask what they have in place in an office setting.

Fear of Being Called Out

Related to the fears of judgement and change, we may worry that the counsellor will “call us on our crap” or call out the behaviour of a loved one. Some of us actually choose counsellors that will be more confrontative, while others shy away from counsellor directness in therapy.

Alternative view:
Being called out or hearing others’ behaviour called out can be painful. This is not necessarily synonymous, however, with the therapist insisting that you make immediate changes. Also, therapists who are challenging their clients should be operating from a place of care and the desire to help facilitate growth in therapy. Communicate with your therapist at any stage of your therapy, if you have concerns about their approach.

Fear for Safety and Security

If we are financially or situationally dependent on a loved one, and their behaviour towards us is toxic, or even dangerous, we are presented with a very real dilemma.

This is a serious concern and it is important to let your therapist know about any limitations and any potential threats to your safety or security. These factors must guide all therapy interventions.

Now that we’ve addressed some common fears, it can still be difficult to take the step to open up. Some of the tips, below, may help.

Tips For Helping You To Decide

  • Know your therapy rights. This may seem basic but a review of these rights can help orient you in a counselling session.
  • Give your therapist a heads up about how far you are willing to discuss (or not) important people in your life or if you have concerns about opening up.
  • If you just need to talk and aren’t ready yet to take specific steps, that’s ok! It can be helpful to communicate about this with your counsellor, so you’re both on the same page. If you feel pressured by a counsellor to change in particular ways, when you’ve told them no, choose another counsellor.
  • Choose a therapist who listens and respects your limits; clients often have very valid reasons for not proceeding with things because the timing or circumstances may not be right to support these changes.
  • Be upfront with your therapist about relationship topics that you are worried about or that have traditionally caused you a lot of pain. This gives the chance to talk about your fears of opening up before actually opening up.
  • If you feel like all you’re ever doing is complaining in counselling, this can be an opportunity to reflect on whether there are any underlying fears that need to be explored first, which might be being covered up by complaints.
  • If you’re still on the fence, experiment with other things that promote opening up such as journalling, talking to friends, mediation and/or other spiritual practices. How do these methods make you feel?
  • Set your own limits when it comes to privacy and your sessions. If you have chosen to disclose to family and/or friends that you’re in counselling, how much counselling content, if any, do you wish to share?
  • Be clear about readiness for change or your change timeline. Resource up. If you are planning to open up about difficult things that could lead to change, what are other things in the community that could support your change process?
  • If you feel you are in an abusive relationship, family situation, or are experiencing intimate partner violence, please discuss this with your counsellor so that you can develop a safety plan. If you’re in Canada, a resource list can be found here.
  • Choose a regulated or registered counsellor. This sounds basic but someone who does not have adequate counselling training and is not bound by rules of confidentiality is a risky choice when it comes to the care of your innermost thoughts and feelings. Counselling is not regulated by the government in British Columbia. Please do your research before hiring a counselling professional.