Should I Go for Therapy?

Q: The oldest of my three children is a 21-year-old son who has had severe social issues and general anxiety for a number of years. He has gone to various general psychotherapists and specialists, as well as to psychiatrists who help him deal with the biochemical nature of his problems. Although I have seen some progress, I would have hoped there would be more improvement by now.

Some of these doctors feel that as a chronic worrier, I’m a poor role model for my son. But putting the blame on me is not particularly helpful. I have enough things to worry about: My lovely daughter gets no offers for shidduchim, my husband barely earns enough money to pay our monthly expenses, there is ongoing friction between me and my mother-in-law … and the list goes on.

I know that I focus too much on these problems on a daily basis. More than one professional suggested that I go for psychotherapy to help with my own anxiety. They feel that I send my son mixed messages and would be better able to separate from him — to give him his independence — if I did my own self-introspection.

I’ve always heard that you can only help yourself when you want to do it for yourself; doing something for someone else only seems to have a temporary effect. I also have no desire to revisit the time when I was four years old and my mother disappointed me, and spend hours and hours talking about that. But on the other hand, I want to do what’s best to help my son.

As we have limited funds to pay for psychotherapy, my choices are limited. Agencies with sliding scales have students working there, who don’t seem to have much experience. I’ve also heard some crazy things that therapists have said to patients. What are your thoughts about this?

A: No two faces are exactly alike; no two people (therapists included!) are the same. Though people may complain of problematic therapeutic experiences, a helping person needs to be the right shaliach in any given situation.

Entering a therapeutic relationship involves risk, as does any relationship in which one makes oneself vulnerable to another. However, if you are plagued by constant anxiety, any reasonable attempts to alleviate such a condition should be undertaken. Even if a therapist is a novice, there is much you can learn if self-improvement is your goal. Therapists have different styles; some are more reflective, and others are more direct in their approach. If a psychotherapist (or other helping professional) turns out to be unhelpful, leaving the relationship is a perfectly acceptable decision for you to make.

A common therapeutic tool in dealing with anxiety is that of implementing cognitive behavior therapy techniques. This focuses on the idea of positive self-talk, as is well reflected in Rabbi Zelig Pliskin’s writings (e.g., Conversations with Yourself). A person’s negative and positive cognitions form their minute-to-minute self-talk and how they perceive themselves and the world. This type of therapy is more present-oriented, and might be more beneficial to you.

If a person is uncomfortable delving into her past, a therapist will not take her there. However, examining our past can be helpful to some degree, as past experiences are instrumental in forming our present reactions. Reviewing our positive coping strategies in past difficult situations is also helpful, as it reminds us of our inborn strengths.

Although going for professional help at this point may be due to your son’s needing a healthier mother, I’m sure there is much you can gain from this process of self-introspection.

Hatzlachah!