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How to Help Someone Get Help (and not ruin your relationship)

By Rachel Martin, AMFT, supervised by Marté J. Matthews, LMFT

We’ve all been there. A friend or family member, even a coworker calls and you feel your stomach drop to the floor. As they talk, the issues they’re struggling with become overwhelming. And now more than ever with the COVID-19 outbreak and Black Lives Matter movement in full swing, we are experiencing heavier issues. You wish you could take some weight off of their shoulders and help them feel better. But instead you end up feeling like you’re responsible for fixing the problem. The more you try, the worse it gets. You find yourself trying to avoid talking about anything that might lead to another impromptu “therapy session,” but it seems that the more you try to keep the conversation light, the more your friend’s problems take over every interaction. You want to say “Maybe you should talk to someone…” but you’re worried that you might make things worse. You might question yourself, “Who am I to tell someone they need help?”

You are someone who cares. You are someone who realizes that the person in front of you is struggling, and needs more than you can provide. You might just be the strongest and wisest person in their support network because you recognize that you can’t fix this for them. You can recognize when someone else would be more appropriate to help your friend.

How do we help a friend realize it’s time to talk with a therapist? Maybe we are concerned that the person will react in anger, attack us for thinking they need help. How can we make sure that our words don’t send the person spiraling further into crisis, thinking that they can’t even count on us to be there for them? The fact is, we can’t control the person’s reaction at all. They might take it well, or they might react negatively and withdraw, leaving you to worry and wonder about their well-being. That’s a really difficult thing to imagine. So we don’t do anything. Challenge yourself to break out of analysis paralysis. Is this current situation working? Are they learning skills to help accept and adapt, and improve their life? And are you able to maintain a happy and healthy life while trying to support a person who needs more than you can offer? If the answer is no, then it might be worth thinking about encouraging the person to seek professional therapeutic help.

How to begin? First come from a place of honesty about what you are and aren’t able to do to support this person. It’s hard to identify your own limitations and capabilities. Hard, but necessary. Identify ways that you are capable and willing to support this person. You will need to set clear boundaries to keep yourself healthy and happy while using your extra “oxygen” to support your friend/coworker/family member/patient. Let the person know how much you do care. Identify the ways you are actually able to support them, and what you can’t do anymore. This helps clarify what exactly their needs are. Then together you can identify who might be able to help them with those needs.

A very wise therapist I know (Beth Proudfoot, LMFT, owner of Child & Family Counseling Group) encourages people to think about “putting on your own oxygen mask first” before trying to help others. Those airline attendants are really onto something when they encourage us to make sure we’ve got our own needs taken care of first, before we accidentally give away what we need. You might need to consult a friend, colleague, or your own therapist or to help you identify your own capabilities, needs and boundaries before deciding how you can best support your friend.

It’s never easy to watch someone struggle. Take the time to figure out what support you are actually able to provide without taking on the other person’s problems. Modeling how to take care of yourself and seek out support is a very powerful way to support the people in your life. Child & Family Counseling Group has therapists who can offer therapy to adults, in addition to children, teens and families. Please visit our website and email or call if you or someone you know needs a counselor.

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