Supporting Our Loved Ones through Mental Health Challenges (and Life’s Challenges in General)
Updated: May 30, 2019
Growing up, I had a close relative diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder and substance abuse challenges. For many years I wished they were different. I wished they would change and make better decisions for themselves. I even got to the point that I was so frustrated with them I stopped talking to them. It was not until my formal training as a counsellor that I realized the best thing I could do for them is accept them and love them for who they are. This did not mean I needed to support poor decision making (I often found myself gently questioning what their motivations were behind their decisions and softly challenging them accordingly), but it does mean I was there for them when they needed help and support; they knew I was a safe, non-judgemental person they could turn to.
Carl Rogers in his book On Becoming a Person: A Therapist's View of Psychotherapy wrote: “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” Rogers is known as one of the founding fathers of humanistic psychology. Humanistic psychology is a strength-based, person-centered, and holistic form of therapy that arose in response to the more harsh, critical, and top-down approaches of psychoanalytic theory and behaviorism of the mid-twentieth century (both approaches have evolved into gentler forms since then). Where early psychoanalytic theory often saw people as flawed and broken and needing to be fixed, and behaviorism saw them as needing to be controlled and manipulated through reward and punishment, humanism viewed them as being perfectly imperfect, high-lighting their strengths and potential and accepting people for who they are. Equally important was the role of the humanistic therapist who- although a trained professional- for the first time in the world of therapy, stepped off the ‘expert’ pedestal and worked alongside their clients in a collaborative client-counsellor relationship.
Carl Rogers, in his personal work and study, found that the more he was able to be present and accepting of someone in the moment, the more they were open, willing, and ready to change.
Current research has supported Rogers’ humanistic theory. Attachment research demonstrates the power of ‘attuning’ to children’s energy levels and emotions in the present in order to sooth them and strengthen their own emotional-regulation skills. Motivational interviewing, a highly research-backed approach, stresses the importance of meeting people where they are at in their readiness to change. Researcher, scholar, and social worker Brenè Brown in her video, “The Power of Empathy”, demonstrates the importance of feeling with someone in their difficult situation, opposed to giving advice or comparing the situation to others’ experiences. Megan Devine, psychotherapist and communication expert demonstrates in her video “How to Help a Grieving Friend,” emphasizes that the most important thing you can do for someone in grief is be there with them in their pain. The common thread? Don’t try to change anything. Just be present.
How could this be? If I want someone to change, get better, live a healthier lifestyle, make better choices, etc., I surely have to try to lead them in the right direction, help them problem-solve, motivate them through rewards and punishments to do the right thing, no? No. At least not at first.
Research shows that people will not listen to advice, problem-solving, feedback, etc. until they feel understood. And what makes them feel understood? Active listening with compassion, empathy, and openness. No judgement. No trying to change them. No underlying agenda. Simply accepting them for who they are and where they are at. It is after they feel understood that they will often (not always) begin to initiate problem-solving, change, etc., on their own and maybe even start asking for your perspective and help. At this point, once we have made a connection, we can begin to give gentle direction. As Daniel Siegel says, "connect before direct".
Keep in mind that accepting and loving someone for who they are does not mean that we support or encourage destructive and hurtful behavior, nor do we stay in the relationship if it is physically, emotionally, or psychologically abusive. Sometimes we AREN’T the right person to help our loved ones, and that is okay. It is important to hold firm yet loving boundaries for both your safety and theirs, while keeping in mind that they are humans trying to do the best they can with the tools and skills they have, even when their actions may seem to make little sense.
This is NOT an easy process, and it can wear on those wanting to help their loved ones, particularly if there are mental health issues or an individual’s safety is involved. You may see your loved one bounce back and forth from preparing to change, to actively changing, to being complacent again. This can be hair-pullingly frustrating!! But the truth is, we cannot control anyone but ourselves. In the end, it is a strong and supportive relationship with our loved one that will help them the most. We can only foster such a relationship if we can connect with them on a deeper level, holding space for all their shame, hurt, guilt, sadness, anger, and fears.
On that note, I leave you with one last quote from Carl:
“When a person realizes he has been deeply heard, his eyes moisten. I think in some real sense he is weeping for joy. It is as though he were saying, "Thank God, somebody heard me. Someone knows what it's like to be me.” ― Carl R. Rogers
Cheers and peace,
**IMPORTANT NOTE: If a person is in immediate danger of hurting themselves or others, an active approach needs to be taken, such as calling the authorities and/or Child and Family Services and warning those who may be in danger.
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