NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Monday, December 11, 2017

Coping With the Family "Ghosts" in Your Psychotherapy Sessions

It's a common experience for clients attending psychotherapy sessions to feel guilty and ashamed when they talk about their family to their psychotherapists.  For many clients, it can feel like there are family "ghosts" in the room listening to them (see my articles: When "Family Loyalty" Gets in the Way of Your Psychotherapy Sessions).

Coping With the Family "Ghosts" in Your Psychotherapy Sessions

Clients, who grew up in families where they were told not to talk about the family beyond the confines of the family home, often feel they are being disloyal to their family when they speak to their therapist about family members (see my article: Toxic Family Secrets).

Most psychotherapists under this phenomenon and try to help clients to deal with their ambivalence about, on the one hand feeling the need to talk about their family history and, on the other hand, feeling as if they're violating a family rule.

Some clients can feel so guilty and ashamed that it feels like family members are hovering over their sessions like ghosts that are eavesdropping on what they're saying to their therapist.

If this is happening to you, the best way to deal with this is to talk to your therapist about it because talking about it helps to bring light to the situation and this usually helps to alleviate guilt and shame.

Let's take a look at a fictional vignette that addresses these issues:

Fictional Vignette:  Coping With the Family "Ghosts" in Your Psychotherapy Sessions:

Meg started psychotherapy after attending another family gathering where her father got drunk again.

Although she loved her family very much, she was fed up with her father's alcoholism, her mother's excuses for her father, and her brother's obliviousness to what was going on in the household.

These family visits were so unpleasant that Meg was considering avoiding them in the future because she felt so sad and angry afterwards.

When her father was sober, he was kind and considerate.  But after he had a few drinks, he became a different person.  He became critical and argumentative of Meg's mother, brother and Meg, and he spoiled the family dinner.

Whenever Meg complained to her mother about these incident, her mother made excuses for her father.  She would say that he was going through a rough time or that he was under a lot of stress.  But, as Meg pointed out to her mother, her father had a long history of excessive drinking.  Meg remembered her father getting drunk like this when Meg was a child.

Meg's brother told Meg that when their father got nasty after a few drinks, he would "zone out" and not pay attention.  This is how he coped.

When Meg spoke to her therapist about the family dynamic, she began to feel guilty that she was saying negative things about her family, especially her father.  She had never been to therapy before, and she felt as if she were betraying her family by talking about them.

Coping With the Family "Ghosts" in Your Psychotherapy Sessions
While she was describing the last family visit where her father got drunk, Meg was overcome with anxiety.  She felt as if her mother, father and brother were in the room with her and they could hear everything that she was saying (see my article: Starting Psychotherapy: It's Not Unusual to Feel Anxious or Ambivalent).

Overcome with guilt and shame, Meg told her therapist, "I really do come from a good family, and my father has been very good to me.  My mother too.  They're good people.  I don't want you to think that they're these people who are totally dysfunctional."

Meg's therapist could see what was going on with Meg, and she asked her if she was feeling guilty for talking about her family.

Meg was able to talk about her guilty and shame for talking about her family, especially her father, and her ambivalence about being in therapy at all.

Her therapist normalized Meg's feelings and told her that many clients feel this way, especially when they start therapy.

After that, Meg was able to talk about each family member's strengths as well as their problems, including her father.

She was also able to say more about how the family dynamic affected her rather than concentrating on each family member's dynamics.

As she focused on her own response to her family members, Meg felt more entitled to her own feelings.  She also felt entitled to take care of herself in these situations.

Over time, Meg and her therapist focused on helping Meg to heal from these longstanding problems.

Meg also came to accept that she couldn't change her family--she could only change herself (see my articles: Getting to Know the Only Person You Can Change: Yourself).

It's common for clients in therapy to feel guilty and ashamed when they talk about family dynamics in therapy.

For many people, talking about their family outside of the family home can feel like they're betraying their family.

The guilt and shame that they feel is projected outward so that it feels like there are family "ghosts" in the therapy session seeing and hearing everything the clients say.

Being able to talk to your therapist about your guilt, shame and feelings that you're betraying your family is the best way to dispel these feelings.

Psychotherapy is not just about venting or criticizing your family--it's really about how your family history affects you and what you and your therapist can do to help you to heal (see my article: Psychotherapy is More Than Just Venting: Understanding Content and Process in Therapy).

Getting Help in Therapy
Many people, who could benefit from psychotherapy, never come because of their misconceptions and fears about the process (see my article: Common Myths About Psychotherapy: Going to Therapy Means You're Weak).

One particular phenomenon that clients often deal with in therapy, especially clients who are new to the therapy process, is their ambivalence, guilt and shame about talking to their therapist about their family dynamics.

If you're in therapy and you haven't told your therapist about these feelings, you would probably feel a sense of relief from being open about your feelings.

If you've been on the fence about attending therapy to deal with your problems, you might be surprised to know that therapy is more than just venting about your family--it's about you (see my article: Self Care: Feeling Entitled to Take Care of Yourself).

Rather than struggling on your own, you could benefit from working with a licensed mental health professional who can help you to work through your problems (see my articles: The Benefits of Psychotherapy and How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

Working through your family history can free you to live a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

I have helped many clients to overcome the obstacles getting in their way from maximizing their potential.

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.