NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Friday, March 23, 2018

Learning to Accept That You Can't Control Your Loved Ones

While it's understandable that you would want to spare your loved ones from experiencing pain or misfortune, if you try to control the lives of people close to you, you will need to learn what many other people have learned before you--you can't control anyone else's life.  Psychotherapy can help you to understand why you have a need to do this, help you work through the issues involved and to eventually accept that you need to focus on yourself (see my articles: When Someone You Love Rejects Your Help and Avoiding Codependency With Your Children).

Learning to Accept That You Can't Control Your Loved Ones 

If you think you can see clearly what a loved one needs and your offer to help is rejected, it can be a very difficult thing to accept.  Your intention, of course, is to help, but if your loved one doesn't want your help, you will need to back off--no matter how noble your intentions might be (see my article: Overcoming the Need to Be Everyone's Caretaker).

This can be especially difficult with close family members when you're anxious about their well-being and how they're living their lives.  But when your loved ones tell you that they don't want your help and they're of legal age and competent enough to make their own decisions, you could ruin your relationship by continuing to push.

I see many clients in my psychotherapy private practice in New York City who feel anxious and heartbroken that family members refuse to take their advice or allow them to help.  Their family members see their offer to help as being controlling behavior.

The more they try to help, the more their loved ones push them away.  In some cases, a family member can become estranged because of the strain of this dynamic.

Fictional Clinical Vignette:  Learning to Accept That You Can't Control Your Loved Ones
The following fictional clinical vignette illustrates this dilemma and how psychotherapy can help:

After Beth found out from her older daughter, Nell, that her 21 year old son, Rich, was abusing painkillers, she spoke to her son and offered to arrange to send him to a drug rehabilitation center.  Although Rich didn't deny that he was abusing painkillers, he was annoyed that his older sister divulged this information to their mother, brushed off his mother's suggestion and told her that he knew that he could stop on his own, without help, at any time.

In Beth's family of origin, her father and older brother both abused drugs and alcohol.  This caused Beth, her mother and Beth's siblings much suffering when Beth was a child.  Her father and brother both eventually got clean and sober when Beth was in her 20s, but their addictions precipitated a divorce between the mother and father and alienation with most other family members.

Since Beth's mother was incapacitated most of the time by her depression, as the oldest child, Beth assumed responsibility for her family at an early age.  By the time she was 12, she was cooking and cleaning for her family because her mother stayed in bed all day.  And sometimes Beth went to the local bar to find either her father or brother (or sometimes both) to bring them back home (see my article: Dynamics of Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families).

At the time, Beth didn't think this was unusual. She didn't understand that she was functioning as a parentified child.  She saw herself as being "strong" and able to handle whatever came up in the family.  At a young age, she felt she could resolve any family problem (see my article: Children's Roles in Dysfunctional Families).

Beth was the one, when she was in her early 20s, who arranged, at various times, for her father and brother to attend inpatient treatment.  When her father's primary counselor at the rehabilitation center explained the concept of codependency to Beth and recommended that she attend Al-Anon meetings, Beth dismissed this.  Her feeling was that she wasn't the one with the problems, so she didn't see why she should go to Al-Anon meetings.

When Beth couldn't persuade Rich to go to inpatient treatment, she asked her father to come speak with Rich.  By this time, her father had over 20 years of sobriety and he was still active in the 12 Step community.  He spoke with Rich one-on-one and tried to persuade him to get help, but Rich was angry that his mother told his grandfather about his addiction, and he stopped talking to Beth.

Beth worried about Rich night and day.  She hardly slept.  She blamed herself for divorcing his father, who was an active alcoholic who broke contact with Beth, Nell and Rich.  She thought about all the things that she "should" have done to prevent her son from getting addicted to painkillers, and she continued to try to persuade him to get help--to no avail.

Several weeks later, Beth received a call from the police that Rich was in a car accident and he was arrested for driving while impaired.  He explained that her son was taken to the hospital where he would be medically evaluated and and evaluated for a detox.

After Beth got off the phone, she was so upset that she was shaking.  She blamed herself for not doing more for Rich.  She felt she could have prevented this accident and arrest, but she wasn't forceful or persuasive enough.

At the hospital, she found out that, aside from minor bruises, Rich wasn't seriously injured and no one else was hurt.  The doctors told her that it would take about 10 days or so to detox Rich from the painkillers.  During that time, Beth hired an attorney, who recommended to Rich that, as soon as he was able, he go to a drug rehabilitation center to deal with his addiction and to show the judge that he was serious about getting clean.

Rich completed the hospital detox and a 28 day stay at a rehabilitation center.  Since it was his first offense, the judge agreed that Rich should go to rehab and a court representative would monitor his treatment.

While he was in rehab, Beth and Nell went to visit him twice.  They met with the primary counselor, who recommended Al-Anon for them.  Both Beth and Nell scoffed at the idea.

Following inpatient treatment, Rich attended outpatient treatment and he went to 12 Step meetings with his grandfather.  Eventually, he obtained a sponsor and he began to turn his life around.

Even though Rich was doing much better, Beth continued to relive the moment she received the phone call from the police officer.  She ruminated about how her son could have been killed in that car accident and she blamed herself.  This went on for months, until finally, Beth's best friend, who listened to Beth blame herself over and over again, recommended that Beth seek help in therapy.

Normally, Beth wouldn't even consider attending psychotherapy, but she knew she needed to do something, and she didn't know what else to do.  She was a nervous wreck, and she couldn't sleep.  So she contacted a psychotherapist to begin therapy.

Learning to Accept That You Can't Control Your Loved Ones

After Beth told her psychotherapist about Rich's addiction, how she tried to help him and how guilty she felt, about the car accident and her family's history with addiction, Beth's psychotherapist explained to Beth that her traumatic family history was getting played out with her son.  She told Beth that she functioned as the family rescuer in her family of origin and she was trying to function in that same role with her adult son, but it wasn't working.

Her psychotherapy explained the concepts of codependency to Beth and helped Beth to make connections between her family history and her current situation with Rich.  She also explained to Beth that she functioned as a parentified child in her family because neither her mother or father were able to function as parents.

As Beth listened to her psychotherapist, she realized that this all made sense, but she didn't know how to stop trying to control her son.  She explained to her psychotherapist that, even though he was randomly tested at his outpatient program, all his tests were negative and he seemed to be doing well, she continued to try to monitor his behavior.  She worried whenever he went out and she was vigilant for any signs of a relapse.  This created tension between Beth and her son, and he told her that he planned to move out with sober friends as soon as he found a job.

Beth's psychotherapist recommended that Beth start focusing on herself, specifically learning to de-stress with meditation and breathing exercises that her psychotherapist taught her.  She also recommended that Beth work on her unresolved childhood trauma with EMDR therapy (see my articles: What is EMDR Therapy? and How EMDR Therapy Works: EMDR and the Brain).

Beth had little confidence that her psychotherapist's recommendations would work, but she didn't know what else to do, so she practiced the meditation and breathing exercises.  She also began taking a yoga class and she developed a wind down routine to sleep better.

When Rich told Beth that he found a new full time job and he had plans to move in with sober friends, she became highly anxious.  When she saw her psychotherapist, she fretted that if Rich moved out, she wouldn't be able to monitor how he was doing and she would worry all the time.

Her psychotherapist was empathetic towards Beth.  She understood that Beth was experiencing anxiety about the current situation and her history of family trauma with two addicted family members was also getting triggered.

By the next session, Beth and her psychotherapist began processing her recent traumatic experience with her son's addiction to help Beth's mind and nervous system to get caught up with the fact that her son was actually doing well and she was the one who was still stuck at the point when she found out that her son was abusing painkillers.

Over time, EMDR therapy helped Beth to "update" her emotional experience with her son.  Before doing EMDR, Beth knew objectively that her son was sober and he was doing much better.  But on an emotional level, she was still stuck back in that moment when Nell told her that Rich was abusing painkillers and also in the moment when she got the call from the police officer.

After doing EMDR therapy, over time, Beth gradually worked through her traumatic family history.  She felt compassion for the young child that she had been when she was taking on adult responsibilities for her family.  She could look back now and realize what an impossible task that was and what a toll it took on her emotionally.

Learning to Accept That You Can't Control Your Loved Ones

After Beth worked through her history of trauma, she and her psychotherapist tackled her current worries about her son.  Having worked through the earlier history of trauma, working on her feelings about her son was, although not easy, easier than she would have expected.  She was able to know and feel that Rich was doing better.  She told her psychotherapist that she could now feel the uselessness of her worrying (see my article: Experiential Therapy, Like EMDR Therapy, Helps to Achieve Emotional Breakthroughs).

She also felt and accepted on an emotional level that she couldn't control her son or anyone else--she could only control herself.  Although this made her feel sad in a way, she said she also felt relieved because she knew there was nothing for her to do now.

Beth continued to focus on herself.  She eventually went to Al-Anon meetings to get group support to help her not to backslide.

After she stopped trying to monitor Rich's behavior, Beth and Rich got closer and they were able to repair their mother-son relationship.

Accepting that you can't control your loved ones' life can be one of your biggest challenges, especially if you grew up being a parentified child as in the fictional vignette above.

You can offer your loved ones love and emotional support, but you can't live their lives for them or try to control what they do.

By focusing too much on your loved ones' problems, you not only risk alienating them, but you also risk neglecting yourself.

Sometimes, you have accept that your loved ones can do what's necessary to take care of themselves when they're ready.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you try to control your loved ones' behavior, you might have a long history of trying to rescue family members in your family of origin.  If you were successful in rescuing family members, you might really  believe you can also control loved ones in their current life.  If you were unsuccessful in rescuing family members, you might feel compelled to "get it right this time" in your current situation.

Trying to control loved ones when they reject your help, as in the scenario above, is counterproductive and the situation tends to spiral down.

A skilled psychotherapist can help you to overcome codependency issues so that you can stop trying to control what you can't control and focus on taking care of yourself (see my article: The Benefits of Psychotherapy).

A trauma therapist can help you to overcome trauma related to the current situation as well as unresolved trauma related to the past (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

Once you accept that you can't control anyone else and learn to let go, you can feel freer and live a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

I work with individual adults and couples.

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.