Supporting & Empowering Your Loved Ones who are Struggling.

Have you ever heard people compare emotional health with a bank account?

Basically, in order to be able to make emotional withdrawals (i.e. giving love and attention to other people without depleting oneself), a person needs to make emotional deposits (self-care, words of affirmation, connecting (CONNECTING) connecting… being validated… oh, and did I say connecting??).

If you have loved ones who have some type of emotional distress or a mental health diagnosis, you probably have tried to help them before… whether it was to validate them or to help motivate them or otherwise…

Here’s the thing. Sometimes the way we want to help people is often the way that we would want someone to help us (super cool that we do that… it’s that whole “Golden Rule: do unto others” rule. But in my years working with clients with a variety of mental health diagnoses, grief statuses, trauma symptoms, and general daily life stressors, one of the most common topics that clients bring up is that they feel alone despite others’ attempts to reach out: because the way in which someone is trying to help is not the way in which the person who is struggling prefers. My clients tend to be so grateful that people care to help at all and they typically know that the offers of assistance are very well-intentioned, however, approach and mindfulness matter.

Below, you will find a short list of ways to help your struggling loved one to not feel alone in a room full of people.

Validate their experience, don’t question it.

Even if you don’t understand it, validate it. There are huge levels of relief in validation.

For example, it is a giant milestone for some people with mood disorders (i.e. Depression, Bipolar Disorder), grief, & trauma symptoms to simply get out of the bed in the morning. While symptomatic, it takes considerable effort to get up, get dressed, and get out of the house to work/school. If they make it through their productive day and come home and crash without cleaning, cooking, or doing homework, they often report feeling guilty (adding to the depression/grief/trauma symptoms). And doing this with enough frequency will inevitably put them behind in housework/school work and that adds even more weight to their shoulders (and also the shoulders of whoever they may share a home with).

I can’t count the number of clients I have seen over the years who feel excruciatingly embarrassed by this pattern. They feel ashamed. Less than. Unworthy. And add those 3 feelings to a clinical diagnosis, the cycle worsens.

Don’t say: “Just wake up and do it and THEN take a nap.” (even thought that’s some good advice and might be doable).

Instead say: “I saw how much it took out of you to get through today. I know it wasn’t easy. Let me know how I can help because I also know the stuff around you is overwhelming. I see your effort.”

Don’t say: Why are you even depressed? What are you anxious about? You have nothing to be upset about. It’s in your head. (Please please please please please don’t say those things).

Instead say: I’ve never been where you are. Help me to understand what it’s like to live with {depression/anxiety/bipolar/PTSD}. I know from the outside it doesn’t always make sense. Help me see it from the inside.

Be Honest (and tactful) with your needs

Being supportive of someone does not mean enabling them. It simply means meeting them where they are and doing what is in your capacity to help them through it while not losing sight of your needs.

A big fear that my clients often express is becoming a burden on their family members when they go through symptomatic cycles. And they have that fear because they know it often happens…

Wait… keep reading…

It often happens… WHEN… their loved ones are not being honest with themselves and their loved ones about their own needs. In other words, without self-care, you’re going to begin to slide into unhealthy cycles of codependency (putting others’ wants and needs ahead of your own needs… it never ends well… don’t slide into that if you can avoid it).

Don’t say: Sure! I’ll clean every day this week for you because I know you’re exhausted and you’re having a hard time! (while meaning: I have SO MUCH on my plate I don’t think I can do it without staying up til the wee hours).

Do say: I’ll help where I can. I know I can get some dishes done. I need to get some sleep tonight so it’s okay if we don’t get it all done tonight.

Don’t say: You can’t do ANY of this stuff? Why does this always fall on me??

Do say: I’m here for you. If I can’t be, it’s not because of anything other than I need to take care of myself, too.

Offer an ear to listen… don’t demand a mouth to talk…

Simple as that… sometimes words can’t describe a whole lot of what people are emotionally going through… and since there’s often not a “reason” besides a clinical brain health issue, it makes it even harder to put into words.

Don’t say: What’s wrong….? What’s wrong? Why won’t you tell me? Just TRY! What’s wrong? Ugh you can’t get any better if you keep it all in!!…..

Do say: When you find the words, I’m here to listen and ready to try to understand. Just because I’m not asking you doesn’t mean I’m don’t care. I am always ready to listen… From what I understand, it can be hard to put into words. (and then leave it alone).

Encourage them to talk to their team

If your friend/family member has a doctor, a counselor, or any other professional that they are comfortable with already, remind them that you’re there for them, but sometimes it goes beyond your competency.

Don’t say: OMG go to your shrink!!!!!! I can’t HANDLE you! (I feel like if you’re reading this, you’re not a person to say something so harsh haha most people who would read a “how to best be there for someone” tend to be more compassionate.

Do say: Have you talked to your counselor about how you’ve been doing? This is hard and I want to be sure you’ve got someone who might be able to help more than me.

Don’t say: UGH just make an appointment already!!

Do say: Would it help you if I was with you when you called?

Being there sometimes is enough…

These aren’t the only ways to be there for your loved ones, however, these frequently appear on the “wish lists” of my clients who struggle… Hopefully these tips not only help you to help them, but also help you to take care of yourself in the process. Let your loved one know that you read an article about how to be supportive… and ask them what they would add and what they prefer! It’s a great ice breaker into this (difficult) conversation.

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