Do you have a friend or family member who is in therapy? Maybe you’re new to the concept of mental health and aren’t familiar with what your loved one in therapy is going through. You might not be sure what to say when the topic arises. Here are some basic phrases you should avoid when talking to your loved one about therapy. Also, I’ve provided you with some alternative phrases to say or ask if you’re not sure how to talk about the subject.
7 Things Not to Say to a Loved One in Therapy (and What to Say Instead)
1. “Why go to therapy when you can talk to me?”
It’s nice of you to lend an ear to your loved one, but that’s not all someone in therapy needs. While you may be a good listener and have tons of advice, you haven’t had years of education and experience the same way a therapist has. You may not be able to validate someone’s feelings, identify problematic behavior patterns, or teach coping skills the way a therapist does. Plus, there is no way for you to remain neutral. Therapists won’t take it personally if their clients cry, get angry, or talk about uncomfortable or intimate topics.
Alternative: “I understand therapy can be helpful and I’m here if you need to talk.”
Just because someone close to you is in therapy doesn’t mean that your relationship with that person is on the rocks. You might feel slightly betrayed that your friend or family member is speaking to a therapist instead of you about his or her problems, but try not to take it personally. It isn’t that your loved one doesn’t trust you or want to talk to you; it’s that his or her mental health condition requires the help of a trained professional. You wouldn’t expect your loved one to come to you instead of seeing a doctor about a medical problem, so you shouldn’t expect your loved one to come to you instead of seeing a therapist for a mental health condition.
2. “Only (insert offensive word) go to therapy.”
Going to therapy is not for “crazies,” “weaklings,” or “sissies.” On the contrary, it takes a lot of strength to work through some of your most unpleasant emotions or unhealthy behavior patterns. It won’t help your relationship with the person in therapy if you put him or her down for choosing to get help.
Alternative: “I’m sorry to hear that you are having a hard time with your depression. I hope therapy helps.”
It isn’t your place to judge anyone for seeking mental health help. Even if you feel like you would never want to go to therapy yourself, you still have to let the people in your life make that choice for themselves. The decision to go into therapy is usually not made on a whim. Be considerate of the emotional pain that might have caused your loved one to seek help.
3. “You don’t need therapy. Going to the gym is my therapy.”
It’s great that you have an outlet that gives joy in life but it may not necessarily help your loved one. While exercising, gardening, yoga, woodworking, crafting, etc. might make you feel good, that doesn’t mean it will help someone with a mental health problem. Unfortunately, one can’t weight-lift away bipolar disorder or garden away social anxiety. Mental health issues are complex and need a trained professional to help those with mental health issues make progress. For more on this topic, check out my previous article, Cheaper than Therapy.
Alternative: “I hope therapy is helping you feel better. You can also always join me at the gym or in my gardening club if you’d like.”
Be supportive and wish the person in therapy well. If you want to spread the joy that your favorite hobbies give you, don’t be afraid to ask your loved one to join you. Many mental health conditions can cause people to isolate themselves. You could be helping your loved one out by inviting him or her to do an activity with you.
4. “What did you talk about in therapy today?”
Therapy is a very private activity and no one should be expected to give you that kind of information. This can come as a shock if you’re used to your loved one telling you everything. This doesn’t mean that your loved one in therapy doesn’t trust you; it’s that therapy should remain private so clients can feel free to be open with their therapists without feeling like they have to report back to their family members or friends.
Alternative: “How are you feeling today?”
Feel free to check in with your loved one in therapy. It’s good to be aware of how therapy is going and how your family member or friend is feeling. It will also shows your loved one that you support and care about him or her.
5. “You seem normal. Why would you need therapy?”
First of all, there really is no such thing as normal. Everyone is different in many different ways. Plus, having a mental health problem is not uncommon as 1 in 5 adults are estimated to develop a mental health issue in their lifetime. There isn’t anything “wrong” with people who go to therapy. They’re simply trying to make their lives better by figuring out their problems or building skills to handle their conditions better.
Alternative: “I’m proud of you for speaking up and getting the help you need.”
It takes a lot of courage for people with mental health issues to talk about their conditions and seek help. Don’t underestimate the bravery it took for your loved one to get help.
6. “Mental health is a scam.”
You might believe that certain mental health disorders are made up by big pharma or the government to push drugs on the general public. You’re entitled to that belief, but you aren’t entitled to push that belief on to others. Also, if you aren’t familiar with mental health disorders, don’t make snap judgements before doing your research on the subject.
Alternative: “I don’t know much about anxiety; do you know where I can find information to learn more about it?”
If you don’t know about the disorder your friend or family member is being treated for, find out more information so you can be a better support system.
7. “What do you say about me?”
There is a chance your loved one might have mentioned you in a therapy session. This isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing. Understanding the relationships in a client’s life is an important part of therapy. There are many things to discuss in a therapy session, not every conversation will be about you. Don’t assume that your loved one is blaming all his or her issues on you just because he or she is seeing a therapist.
Alternative: “How has your anxiety and depression been since you started therapy? Is there something I can do to help?”
As I mentioned in #3, you can’t force people to discuss everything they said to their therapist. But you can ask how things are progressing, especially if you are the parent to someone in therapy. You should know if a particular mental health treatment is making your son or daughter better. There also might be something you can do to help such as helping your loved one implement the coping skills learned in therapy.
Golden takeaway: Avoid making snap judgements when your friend or family member tells you he or she is in therapy. You can help your loved one by being understanding and supportive of his or her choice to be in therapy. If you’re unfamiliar with the topic of mental health, do some research to better understand what your loved one is going through.
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13 thoughts on “7 Things Not to Say to a Loved One in Therapy (and What to Say Instead)”
This is a great article. Personally, I never thought about the offensive things I might have said to people in therapy until I went to therapy myself. Going to the gym is great and it definitely helps me relax. However, there were some things in my life that were best handled by a psychologist.
Glad you liked the article! Thanks for taking the time to comment.
Tremendous! I”m a clinical psychologist with a busy therapy practice. The topic comes up very frequently (including outside the office, with folks who somehow found out what I do for a living) – THANK YOU VERY MUCH! I hope you don’t mind, I put a link to your article on my professional Facebook page.
Dr. Karustis, I’m very glad you enjoyed my article. Please share it as much as you want!
I have depression,anxiety and Ocd. I have tried therapy and it is only between Us. Thank you for your article.
Thank you commenting. I’m glad you enjoyed the article!
As a social worker in the field of child welfare for just over 18 years, I found the “alternative” responses to be kind and compassionate. . .the ones we would appreciate hearing if we were engaging in therapy. I also appreciate the candid observations contained within. Thanks for a well written article. I will share this with my colleagues who have made comments to others indicating a misunderstanding of the purpose of therapy.
I liked that you said that if one of your family members is going to therapy you should be respectful of their privacy. I would imagine that needed therapy could be a touchy subject for some people. I would be sure to watch my words when discussing therapy with a loved one.
I really love that you said that it takes strength to work through unpleasant emotions because a lot of people think that it isn’t. It’s so sad because they feel like asking for help makes them weaker than somebody who doesn’t. Things like depression are actual illnesses that need real help.
Thank you for your article. Is there a difference when someone tells you they’re seeing a psychotherapist vs. if they had said they’re seeing a psychologist?
Great question. Thanks for asking…
Clinical psychologists have an advanced degree in psychology. Some but not all psychologists provide psychotherapy, as well as other services, such as diagnosis, testing and evaluation, and creation of treatment plans. They may also conduct research, in addition to or instead of providing services.
Psychotherapists provide a form of mental health counseling that helps people make decisions and clarify feelings, as well as offering support and guidance. Psychotherapy can be provided by several types of licensed professionals, including psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, and counselors.
I completely agree that it takes a lot of strength to work through unpleasant emotions, especially if they’re really strong. Sometimes it takes help from a professional to really do it well. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with getting that help.
This is a great article , but I have a issue my mom has bio polar , she is always rude to me and says to me I’m sick and I need therapy I have tried therapy and it did not work , My mom has actually told me she likes upsetting me , I don’t what to do ? Any advice would be appreciated