How do I get the most out of therapy regarding issues with my mother?
September 21, 2011 9:13 AM   Subscribe

Ok, therapy. Now what?

Over the past few years, I have had a difficult time balancing expectations between my mother and wife. Basically, my mother feels that I have neglected her and my family by not spending enough time with them, not been appreciative enough for things she has done for me and my wife, and have made my wife's family a priority over my family. These feelings in my mother have resulted in angry outbursts, cold interactions, and general hostility towards me and my wife. For my wife's part, she has felt that we have made an effort to include my family, that our efforts have failed, and that continuously trying to meet my mother's expectations is pointless. My wife has also been disappointed in my inability to stand up to my mother and expressed concern on the effect all of this has on our marriage. My wife and I have been seeing a couples counselor to talk through these issues, and we have both found that relatively helpful. I have viewed the couples counseling as very surface-level, however, and we have not really attempted to fix any deeper-level issues at play here.

Individually, throughout all of this, I have felt incredibly weak, sad, confused, and anxious about any interactions involving my mother and wife. These feelings culminated in what I guess would be described as a panic attack not so long ago.

Based in part on many comments I have read here, therapy seemed to be in order. I received a referral from the couples counselor to a psychologist, who I have met with once so far. I felt comfortable talking and opening up to the psychologist, but I am somewhat apprehensive about anyone's ability to improve the situation. The counselor asked towards the end of the session "Realizing we can't change your mom or your wife, what do I hope to get out of our sessions?" I responded that I wanted to feeling stronger about the decisions I made and less anxious in dealing with this conflict. Quite frankly, I just want the situation to be "better", and have my doubts about that being possible.

My questions are:

1. How do I get the most out of therapy in this situation?
2. How do I know if therapy is "working"?
3. How do I know if therapy is "not working" and not worth the time and the cost?
4. Anyone with general advice or experiences similar to mine, your insight is much appreciated.
posted by Run.Faster to Human Relations (5 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Sounds like you're doing fine.

You've only had ONE session - this is something that takes time. But you've identified what you want to have happen quite realistically (you want to feel stronger about the decisions you've made). The real work is going to come with figuring out why you DON'T feel confident, and addressing that, and that's going to take some time.

This is of course assuming you have a good rapport with your therapist. That's something you can generally tell pretty quickly.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:24 AM on September 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Basically, my mother feels that I have neglected her and my family by not spending enough time with them, not been appreciative enough for things she has done for me and my wife, and have made my wife's family a priority over my family.

You are married with your own family now, your mom sounds like she is being manipulative and is trying to put herself over your family (you and your wife).

If your therapist is good, they will probably touch on this at some point. You will know when it is working when you have the space to make decisions and feel confident about them for yourself and not let anyone else dictate your actions.

You'll know if it's not working because you won't feel better and you won't be standing up for yourself.
posted by TheBones at 9:34 AM on September 21, 2011

Here is a previous comment I wrote about getting the most out of therapy.
posted by OmieWise at 10:39 AM on September 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

In this situation, therapy can do a lot for you.

To get the most out of it, remember:

This is your place to vent safely - you can talk about any and all of your feelings about the situation and nobody's feelings will be hurt. This can and will be very freeing for you. Sometimes saying things that only sit quietly at the very back of your mind all day and all night is the only thing you need to do to feel better about it.

You should focus first on figuring out what YOU want out of your marriage and your relationship with your wife. Take this time to think, "selfishly" - honestly - about what you want out of those relationships. It doesn't mean you're going to get that, but knowing what you want is the first step to improving your relationships.

Once that solidifies a bit, then take your time with your therapist to identify the ways in which your relationships are measuring up and aren't. Once you feel solid in THAT, then you can work with your therapist to devise strategies to find way to improve your relationships, or if there are aspects that can't be improved, how to cope with that reality.

It's really hard to say for any one person whether or not therapy is working. I personally use the measure of whether or not I feel like the work that I do there is of a benefit to me. It might not line up to "yes, I feel better" - but I know if I am doing what feels like someone else's work (what my therapist thinks I should do, what someone in my life thinks I should do) and it doesn't feel like my own truth, then it's not working.

Again I just want to reiterate - this therapy is for you. It's not for your mother, it's not for your wife. It's for you. Good luck and congratulations on taking a brave step to improve your life and your emotional and mental health! Please feel free to memail me if you'd like. I have been in a situation similar to yours before.
posted by pazazygeek at 11:23 AM on September 21, 2011

(1) Get the most out of therapy by taking the lead in identifying what you need to talk about. How? It really sounds like reading materials such as this and this could be relevant. Have a read, see what strikes you as relevant, and bring those topics to your next therapy session. It will maximize the value of having the insight of a neutral party available.

(2) You'll know it's working when you can feel it causing changes in you that go deeper than the existing emotions surrounding this issue. You'll actually start to feel hopeful and confident that there are solutions to what you have always known as an impossible problem.

(3) You'll know it's not working if after a few sessions of beating the dead horse, the horse still feels dead and your therapist is still struggling to see that the horse is even there.

(4) IME don't just rely on the therapist to guide you. This kind of work is all encompassing, going far beyond that hour in their office. Be passionate about taking your own mental health and the well-being of your family seriously. If you read/hear of something interesting/relevant that seems like it could help you understand this conundrum with your mother, bring it in to the next therapy session. Therapists can be great people, but they are also limited by your ability to present your issues as well as their own ability to understand your issues. So don't be shy. Take the lead for yourself, and meet them halfway. Good luck!
posted by human ecologist at 8:56 PM on September 21, 2011

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