Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Guest Post: Run Away or Stay and Fight: How Family-Conscious Therapy Finally Helped

Today’s guest post is by Ken Myers, owner of GoNannies, a nationally known nanny recruiting website. He discusses his personal experiences with a therapist who was not very helpful, and contrasts it with his experiences with another one who was.

One of the themes of this blog that he illustrates is that good psychotherapists take into account the behavior of  the patient’s intimates, most especially family of origin members - versus those who think a patient’s problems are basically all in their heads and caused only by their own failings, immaturity, irrationality, or inadequacies in one way or another. Or ones who just offer glib or clichéd advice that does not take into account the difficulties patients confront in trying to follow advice to “just say no” to problematic patterns in their lives.

When I was a young teen in high school I started having some problems with stress. I couldn’t seem to keep up with my studies, having friends, and being a part of the family. It wasn’t anything new, really, but the extra work and pressure of becoming an adult and planning what I was going to do with the rest of my life seemed to be more than I could handle.

I remember that even as a young child I was ‘high strung.’ Always conscientious and worried about others, I was the ‘mother hen’ to my younger cousins and siblings. Even with the adults in my life, I tried to help as best I knew how - sitting quietly and attentively at their bedsides when they were ill or happily pitching in to help with chores and housework. Nearly every morning I would wake up with a stomach ache and, ignoring it most days, did everything I could to not ‘rock the boat’ and to be the very best and most helpful child I could be.

As I got older and became more aware of a world outside my immediate family, my responsibilities grew. I was not only responsible for keeping my little family happy and healthy but, but as a part of my religious upbringing, I was supposed to ‘save’ everyone I came across in my life. I had been taught right from wrong and needed to share, mold, guide and teach that to everyone seeming to lack that knowledge.

Of course, others did not take so kindly to my black and white way of looking at the world. After being rebuffed time and time again by my peers I learned to withdraw. They did not want what I had to give and I did not know how else to interact, so I journeyed into my safe world of books and imagination where everything was firmly under my control.

This mostly solitary lifestyle was broken by a few friends who, like me, saw the world in black and white terms and could not seem to cope with the grey. We cautiously and quietly joined forces in a silent pact to keep a façade of normality in a world that seemed so different than we expected. We went about our lives doing what was expected of us with a kind of robotic frenzy, desiring, as all teens and children do, to be ‘normal.’

However, high school changed all that. Some friends fell away, reviling in the grey and rebelling against the rules in a bid to become their own people. Others stayed mostly the same, diving even deeper into religion and black and white thinking until the rules and regulations drove their every step.

Confused and alone, I dared not ask my family what was going on for fear of rocking the boat. I had no friends left whom I had any confidence in; they seemed even more lost than I. With no other adults I trusted I felt lost. This feeling began to manifest itself physically to the point at which a visit to the doctor ended with a recommendation that I go to therapy.

My parents found a therapist within walking distance from my high school and once a week I would go and talk to her. Coincidentally, she was the mother of a student I had grown up with, a rebellious and popular boy, and as time went on I grew more and more dubious of her ability to help me.

Most of the time she just let me talk. It was a help, in a way, just to have someone to listen to my childish and incoherent fears and doubts - someone who, hopefully, would not correct me or be horrified by the meanderings of my mind. However, after the first few sessions I wanted more. I asked her questions on how to cope with the demands of my life: my family, my religion, my peers, my future.

In return I got the most basic of replies. My family was… well the word abusive was never used but was implied, and she thought I should get away from them as soon as possible. Religion was okay but I ‘shouldn’t worry about it so much.’ I should ‘get involved’ and ‘make friends,’get good grades and go to a faraway school.

Confused and no better off than before, I continued to go to her for a while but learned not to ask questions. After a while I told my parents I was ‘better’ and I learned how to hide my physical symptoms for the most part so that they were not alarmed. I stopped going to therapy and learned to cope by hiding in books and daydreams.

I made good grades, got a job, and went home to help with the chores every night and on weekends. I went to church on Sundays and even on the occasional outing with the teens from my Sunday school group, whose names I never even bothered to learn.

I learned that the fewer people I let into my life the less stress I had. So I closed myself off more and more, learning to live a life of isolation and hard work punctuated by reading stories and having dreams of high adventure.

I did end up going away to college for a year. Nothing changed. Distance didn’t relive my anxiety; it just gave me fewer ways to express it directly. I moved to a closer school, but didn’t live at home. Again, nothing changed.

A disaster at home prompted me to move back in and reassume some of the physical responsibilities I had left behind. Now an adult with devastated and ill family members depending on me more than ever, I shouldered all the responsibility of a home and family. I was botching it at some points due to ignorance and inexperience but was trying my hardest to be whoever they needed me to be.

Years later, after a cycle of unhealthy codependence had formed, I woke up - almost literally. I had little memory of what I had been doing with my life. I had just been moving from day to day and functioning enough to survive and keep my family afloat. I was depressed and isolated. I needed help.

I decided to try psychotherapy once again. I went for three sessions to another woman with similar tendencies to the first. However this time I was an adult and could change to someone else. I dropped her and looked again. I finally found a male therapist I had confidence in.

The first session was a revelation. It did not seem that different, in all honesty, from my earlier experiences.  I told him about my life and he listened. But it was his responses that shocked me. Instead of pat answers and wishy-washy platitudes, he asked me a question.

“If you had a magic wand that could change everything, what would you like your life to be like?”

I sat back and blinked. I had my reasonable expectations of eventually living on my own somewhere nice; maybe having a garden and a pet. But what he asked was more than just what I hoped I could realistically achieve.

As I pieced together my answer I started to cry. I had hopes! And dreams! And aspirations! It had been so long since I had thought beyond survival and making a life for those I cared about.

After several sessions he helped me to see that I was not responsible for the other adults in my life. No matter how helpless they acted or how much they ‘needed’ me, they were fully capable of taking care of themselves. He helped me to learn the boundaries between myself and others; to point out that I was not responsible for making others happy or satisfied or complete. I was not responsible for making anyone else happy but me, as I was the only person I had any control over.

“You can lead a horse to water…” he liked to say, pointing out that no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t make people do what was best for them.

By dealing with the real issues instead of hiding from them or trying to run away from them, I gradually learned to let go of responsibilities I had taken on and let others take care of themselves. I became capable of having friends without feeling responsible for their happiness, and I even started dating.

The thing I look back on with the most regret is that I did not get that guidance in high school. What would my life have been like if I had learned about healthy boundaries then? If I had learned how to interact with others in a way that was good for all of us?

It all started with my family. My natural inclinations were used, unconsciously but harmfully, to compensate for my family’s shortcomings. If only someone could have helped me to understand earlier the connection between my stress and my family’s behavior, it would have helped me a lot.

Ken Myers is a father of three and passionate about great childcare. He’s always looking for ways to help families find the support they need to live fuller, richer lives. Find out more about expert childcare by checking out @go_nannies on Twitter.


  1. I've had the best results in finding a good therapist by doing my own research into different psychological schools of thought,i.e., Jungian, family systems, humanistic, etc., and then contacting their teaching institutions directly. There may be research that says the patient/therapist relationship is more important than the therapists particular training, but I don't buy it. It matters A LOT how a therapist thinks inter- and intra-personal conflicts arise.

  2. I can relate to some of the life story too. I sometimes get caught up in if i had done this or if i had done that, it is a mug's game. You did what you did and probably thought it was the best for you at the time, going back can only hurt yourself.