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Monday, July 25, 2016

Psychotherapy Blog: Your Family Might Not Be Supportive of the Changes You're Making in Your Life

In the two previous articles, I discussed coping with psychological trauma and finding personal meaning after trauma.  In this article, I'm focusing on the challenges involved when family members might not be supportive of the changes that you're making (see my article: You're Happy About Making Changes in Your Life But, Unfortunately, Your Loved One Might Find It Challenging).

Your Family Might Not Be Supportive of the Changes You're Making in Your Life

In the fictional vignettes in those articles about Jane, a woman who lost her husband after he had a fatal car accident, I showed how psychotherapy can help to cope with the trauma as well as a personal exploration of what is meaningful after a trauma (see my article: Making Changes to Create the Life You Want).

Family members are often accustomed to seeing you in a particular way and might feel uncomfortable about changes that you decide to make in your life.

Part of this might be related to your family history and part of it might be cultural.

There might also be certain family members who are emotionally invested in seeing you in a certain way and take personal satisfaction in your remaining that way.

After experiencing psychological trauma, many people reevaluate their life and realize that they want to make changes that are meaningful to them.

While this might be life affirming for the person who wants to make these changes, it can feel threatening to family members.

Let's continue to explore these issues in the ongoing fictional vignette about Jane.

Jane's Story Continued
Until she started her internship in graduate school, Jane avoided telling her family about the career change that she wanted to make.

She knew that her parents and siblings, especially her mother, wouldn't understand why, from their point of view, she was leaving a lucrative career in business to become a clinical social worker.

Her family had been very supportive after Martin died suddenly in a car accident (see my article: Coping With Grief For a Loved One).

Until then, she had never felt closer to them.  They all loved Martin and it was a loss for them too.  Her parents and siblings called her frequently and spent time with her.  Without their support, along with her therapy and bereavement group, her grief would have been that much more difficult.

But she knew that they wouldn't understand the changes that she was going through which led to her decision about a career change.  She also knew that she couldn't keep this change a secret any more, especially after she took a leave of absence from her job to do a graduate school internship.

Your Family Might Not Be Supportive of the Changes You're Making in Your Life

After talking about her apprehension with her therapist, Jane decided to take the path of least resistance by talking to her sister, Beth, first.

Jane invited Beth over for dinner, and as they were having coffee and dessert, she began telling Beth how after the loss of Martin she knew she wanted to find more personal meaning in her life.  She told her that as part of her psychotherapy, she began exploring what that meant to her and what changes she wanted to make.

Even before Jane mentioned social work school, she could see that Beth was starting to look concerned, as if she was wondering where this was all leading.

Taking a deep breathe, Jane told Beth that, after exploring many options, she decided to enroll in a social work Master's program to become a clinical social worker.

Jane could see that Beth was at a loss for words, so she told her, "Beth, this is important to me.  I know it's a big change and you might not understand why I'm doing it, but I would like your emotional support."

After Beth asked Jane some practical questions, she told Jane, "I can't say that I'm not surprised to hear you say this.  You have a great job that you've worked so hard to get.  You're well compensated.  But I can also understand, in a way, that you're reevaluating your life, and if  you're sure that this is what you want to do, I'm with you 100%."  Then, she gave Jane a big hug.

Of all her siblings, Jane was closest to Beth and she had a feeling that Beth would be supportive.  As they both relaxed more, Jane told her about the program and her internship at a nonprofit counseling center.

Jane's enthusiasm was contagious and Beth said, "This is wonderful.  I haven't seen you this excited about anything in years."

Then, they both had the same thought at the same time, and Jane said, "I know, I know, mom and dad and Bill and Joe won't understand."

Beth responded, "Mom is going to have a fit.  You know how she likes to brag about you and your 'prestigious job' to everyone that she meets.  She won't like the idea of your being a social worker."

As they discussed it, they agreed that it would be easier to talk to Bill and Joe first before speaking with their parents.

A week or so later, Jane invited Bill and Joe over to her apartment.

As she expected, they were both shocked and pleaded with her not to do it.  Joe thought that Jane's decision to change careers was based on her shock of losing Martin.  Bill told her that he thought it was "crazy."

Jane was patient with them and explained how Martin's death forced her to reevaluate her life and she realized that her current career was no longer meaningful to her and how important it is to her now to be doing something meaningful.  She realized that life is short and she didn't want to waste any more time doing something that didn't make her happy.

Although she knew that she didn't need her family's approval, she also cared what they thought and wanted their emotional support.  But if they weren't going to support her, she would still make the change anyway.

By the end of the evening, Bill and Joe's attitude softened. They still didn't agree with Jane's decision, but they respected it.  Bill also added that he thought all was not lost since she took a leave of absence from her job and she could still go back if social work wasn't as fulfilling as she thought it would be.

All of them agreed that their mother would be shocked and disappointed.  Bill said, "Talk to dad first."

A week or so later, Jane asked her father to come over on the pretext of asking him to help her take care of the plants on her terrace. Tending to the plants had been Martin's hobby and, not having a "green thumb," Jane neglected the plants.  Her father, on the other hand, was a gardener and he would love helping her.  She also knew that this was one way where she could speak with him alone.

After they tended to the plants and they were sitting drinking ice tea on the terrace, Jane broached the subject about career change.

After Jane told him about her process of self discovery leading up to her decision to change career to become a social worker, he was silent for a moment and he looked off into the distance.

Then he cleared his throat and told Jane that he had always hoped that she would do better than he did. He told her the story that she had heard many times about how he was lucky to even graduate high school before he was expected to help his family financially.  He began as a gardener's assistant earning very little money.

Over time, he worked his way up until he bought the business from the owner when the owner retired.  Although there were tough times, the business supported their family and put Jane and her siblings through college.

He told her that he was so proud of her when she got her college degree and went on to get her MBA.  Then, he watched her move up the corporate ladder until she became one of the senior executives in the company.  Now, it seemed to him that she was throwing it all away.

Your Family Might Not Be Supportive of the Changes You're Making in Your Life

Her father's disappointment was palpable.  It hung in the air like a lead balloon.

They were both silent for a while and then her father got up to leave, "You're an adult and I know you.  I know that money isn't an issue, but all I ask is that you think about this carefully before you make this major change in your life."

As he was leaving, he told her that he would be supportive of anything that she would do, but he hoped she would think it over carefully.

After each discussion with her family members, Jane spoke with her therapist.  Although she felt sure that she was making the right decision for herself, she didn't like that her family was worried about her.

An inner child part of her felt sad that her father and siblings were disappointed, and she and her therapist worked on this in therapy.

Jane also braced herself for her discussion with her mother.  Even though her mother was very supportive after Martin died, Jane and her mother had somewhat of a conflictual relationship starting in adolescence.

Jane felt that her mother derived narcissistic satisfaction from Jane's accomplishments without really seeing Jane for the person that she is.

When Jane was a child, her mother bragged about Jane's grades and accomplishments.  Her mother couldn't stop talking to anyone who would listen about all of Jane's promotions.

Her siblings would always tease Jane that she was her mother's "favorite,"but throughout it all, Jane felt that her mother only saw her in terms of how she could bask in Jane's accomplishments and not as a person with her own wants and needs.

Although Jane understood that her mother would have liked to go to college and have a career, she knew that her mother didn't have the same opportunities that she did.  So, Jane felt compassionate towards her mother.

At the same time, she felt that her mother mostly cared about her for her accomplishments and that if she didn't succeed, she wouldn't be her mother's "favorite."

Jane decided to invite her mother for lunch at an outdoor cafe rather than seeing her to home.  She hoped that if they were around other people that her mother would be less likely to lose her temper.

After making small talk through lunch, Jane raised the topic over coffee.  As she began telling her mother about being accepted into the social work graduate program, Jane could see the increasing look of alarm on her mother's face.

Before Jane could tell her about taking a leave of absence from work, Jane's mother threw her napkin on the table and said, "This is completely crazy, and I refuse to listen to it anymore."  Then, she walked off in a huff.

Jane continued in her therapy, which was helpful to her in terms of dealing with the clients she was seeing at the counseling center.  Her clinical supervision was excellent, but she used her therapy to talk about personal issues that arose for her in her internship.

Jane also used her therapy to talk about unresolved childhood issues that got triggered by her mother's strong reaction to Jane's career decision (see my article: Overcoming the Effects of Childhood Trauma).

She always felt loved by her father, but she felt that her mother's love was conditional based on Jane's accomplishments.  This was especially hurtful when Jane was a child, and her mother's reaction brought back all those memories (see my article: Role Reversal in Mother-Daughter Relationships).

By the time Jane graduated from the program, her father and siblings were proud of her.  Over time, they were able to see why this was so meaningful to Jane and they respect it.

Her mother continued to be disappointed, but she went to her graduation ceremony and began talking to Jane again.

As a result of her therapy sessions, Jane realized that her mother wasn't nurtured as a child, and she was also valued mostly for her accomplishments by Jane's maternal grandmother.  Although it was disappointing that her mother couldn't be happy for her, Jane reconciled herself to the fact that her mother wasn't going to change.

Creating a Meaningful Life With a Career Change

More importantly, by the time Jane began as a full time clinical social worker at the same nonprofit counseling center, she knew she had found a career that she loved.  Her supervisor recommended that Jane continue her education at a psychotherapy postgraduate center where she could further develop her clinical skills.

People who experience trauma or big losses as adults often go through a reevaluation of their life.

Part of this reevaluation is often a psychological journey to create a more meaningful life.

For a variety of reasons, family members might not be supportive of these changes.

Psychotherapy with a skilled psychotherapist can help to go through the reevaluation and discovery process as well as deal with the lack of support from family.

The lack of support from family often triggers earlier unresolved childhood trauma that can also get worked through in therapy.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you're reevaluating your life or if you're dealing with family members who are emotionally unsupportive, you could benefit from working with a skilled licensed mental health professional who can help you through your journey.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

I have helped many clients to evaluate their life and to deal with unsupportive family members.

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

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me.

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