NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

When "Family Loyalty" Gets in the Way of Your Psychotherapy Sessions

"What's said in this house stays in this house" is a phrase that many people heard as children when they were growing up, usually said by a parent, grandparent or another adult family member in a stern tone.  As children, many of us learned that family loyalty, with all that this implies about not talking about the family's personal business or family secrets, was a very important cultural value.  For someone who was raised with a strong sense of family loyalty, it can be difficult to start therapy and talk about family problems.  It can make a person feel guilty, ashamed, and ambivalent about therapy.  How can he or she reconcile the need to overcome unresolved family of origin issues with a strong sense of family loyalty?

"Family Loyalty" Can Get in the Way of Your Therapy Sessions

Feeling Like You're Betraying Your Family By Going to Therapy
For many people in therapy, who struggle with this dilemma, it can feel like they're betraying their family by even going to therapy, especially if their problems involve past or current family issues.  This becomes even more of a challenge if family members were not encouraged to be individuals while, at the same time, being a member of the family.  If there was an all-or-nothing attitude about this--you could either be your own person or a loyal family member (but not both), this dilemma becomes even more of a problem.

The following vignette, which is a composite of many different cases with all identifying information changed to protect confidentiality, is an example of this dilemma:

Betty, who was a first generation American, was raised in a very traditional family.  Family loyalty was paramount.  Her father often warned Betty and her siblings that the only people they could ever really trust was their family.  It was all well and fine to have friends, their father told them, but they should never put friends above their family.  They were raised to believe that they should never talk about family matters with "outsiders."  "Outsiders" were considered to be anyone who was not part of the immediate family.  

Most of Betty's siblings didn't leave the family home until they were married.  This is how it was for her parents, her grandparents, and prior generations.  But after Betty graduated from the local college, she began feeling stifled at home.  She longed to move out of the family home and away from their neighborhood in Brooklyn, which felt like a small town to Betty, so she could live in Manhattan with her friends.  As the youngest child and the only remaining child at home, she wanted to have a greater sense of autonomy.  

When Betty told her parents that she wanted to move out, they were very upset.  They couldn't understand why Betty would want to do this.  They had led such insular lives and it was so far from their own experiences that they didn't know how to respond.  They framed the issues in terms of family loyalty:  Wouldn't Betty rather stay with her family, who care about her, instead of living with "so called friends"?  Why would she want to spend money on rent when she could live at home for free?   Why not just wait until she met "a nice young man" to settle down with?

Betty tried to explain to her parents why she wanted to move out, but they couldn't understand her need  to spread her wings.  It was diametrically opposed to their core values.  She loved her parents and didn't want to upset them.  She felt torn between her parents' needs and her own.  But, ultimately, she knew she needed to be more independent, so she moved out.

Betty's world opened up to new and exciting experiences once she moved out.  She had a successful career, good friends, and a new boyfriend.  Things seemed to be going well for Betty and her boyfriend at first.  But a year later, Betty's boyfriend broke up with her to return to his former girlfriend.  Betty was heart broken.  Her friends suggested that she attend psychotherapy to deal with this loss.  

When Betty began therapy and it was time to talk about her family history, she felt very hesitant.  She felt like she was betraying her family.  She didn't want her family to be analyzed by her therapist.  On an intellectual level, she understood that talking about her family history is part of treatment, but she found it very hard, on an emotional level, to do this.  Her sense of family loyalty made it difficult to even talk about the most basic things about her family.  How could she balance her own needs with this sense that she shouldn't reveal personal aspects about her family?

It took a while for Betty to feel comfortable enough to talk about her family.  She almost felt as if her parents were standing behind her in the therapy room.  Over time, she built a rapport and a sense of trust with her therapist and she could talk more easily.  As she heard herself speak, she realized that, even though she loved her family very much, she also felt emotionally oppressed by them at times.  Gradually, she also learned that it was actually healthy for her to have her own sense of self, separate from her family, and she could love her family and still have some resentment towards them.  It wasn't an either-or thing.  She learned that she wasn't betraying her family by talking about them in her family sessions.  It wasn't a matter of complaining about them, but working through issues that involved them.  

Issues About Family Loyalty Can Come Up at Any Age
This vignette is about a woman in her 20s who, among other things, was struggling to differentiate herself from her family.  But issues about family loyalty often come up for psychotherapy clients in their 30s, 40s, 50s and beyond.  It can come up long after a person feels he or she worked out these issues.  People can be emotionally vulnerable to this at different stages in their lives.  

Struggling with the need to take care of oneself vs the need to be loyal to one's family can be even more challenging if there was physical, emotional or sexual abuse, alcoholism, or other family secrets.  

You Can Take Care of Yourself and Still Love Your Family
When you're engaged in your own therapy, you can learn to take care of yourself while, at the same time, you can still love your family.  It doesn't have to be an either-or choice.  And, unlike stereotypical ideas about psychotherapy, therapy is not about blaming your family.  There is a recognition that we are all, for better or worse, affected by our early childhood experiences.  But we're not slaves to those experiences.  As evolved adults, we learn that we can love ourselves as well as our families, if we choose to, and there's no contradiction in this.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR therapist, and Somatic Experiencing therapist.

I work with individual adults and couples, and I've helped many clients to overcome their struggles with family issues so they could lead more fulfilling lives.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.

For a related topic, you can read my article: 
How Do We Balance Our Own Needs with Being Responsive to the Needs of Our Loved Ones?