How to Help Other People
How often have you noticed that a friend or family member seems to be struggling and you want to help? Maybe they even came to you and told you that they’re having a hard time. Of course, it is hard to see them in pain. Of course, you want to do anything possible to help them feel better and improve things for them. But how?
They're the Leader, You're the Support
Just because you're intuitive and you really know your friend doesn't mean you can read their mind. You don't know exactly what they are thinking or want. So you're going to have to communicate with them to find out.
Listen, Listen, Listen, and Listen
How often do you just get to vent and let it all hang out without someone telling you what to do differently, without having to worry about the other person being bored or frustrated or having a negative reaction or judging? Usually not as much as we'd like, but when it happens it can be absolutely incredible! Seriously, it's one of the reasons why people sometimes end up falling in love with their therapists. Being truly listened to is just. that. good. And how you have the opportunity to give someone else this incredible gift.
One of the most important things you can do as a helper or someone who wants to be supportive to someone else is to understand the importance of you really being with someone and listening to them while they openly share their feelings. Listening means attention, giving the person space and time to share, let them pause and cry if need, give them space and time just to be.
Ask What They Need
They might tell you they want to vent. They might tell you they want a hug or someone to just listen to them. They might want help figuring out what to do. They might not know what they need, but the first step is giving them the opportunity to tell you what they need.
Ask if Advice is Wanted
I know, I know. You have some really great recommendations for anxiety. You have this awesome resource you can't wait to tell your friend about. You heard they have anxiety? Oh, man- wait til they hear about how exercise cured your everything!
One of the worst things "helpful" people can do is give unsolicited advice to people who are talking about their feelings. When people are wanting to talk about how they feel or vent and someone jumps in with advice or tries to "make it all better" it can sometimes feel like there isn't any room to express their emotions. It might actually feel like they're being told to shut up or stop whining, which is the opposite of feeling supported.
If They Want Help
You already know the power of listening. What if they want advice? You can talk about what helped you or a friend, but don't be clear about what is scientifically-supported advice and what are the things that happen to be personally helpful to you. If yoga cured all your wounds, don't say "you should do yoga, it cures all wounds." No. Say you think it cured all your wounds.
You can point them in the direction of helpful resources. Does a certain app help you with your anxiety? Did a book give you good tips for managing your adult ADHD? Do you love your therapist? Did you want to tell them about Coco the Louder's mental health live streams (kiddingnotkidding)? Hand them your favorite mental health PDFs or send them to the mental health PDF resource page on this website. Research tips and strategies from professional, reputable sources and share those or ask a professional for reputable resources for info - the last thing someone needs is misinformation that can make managing their mental health problems even worse. You can also offer to be an accountability partner or you can research tips and tricks for tackling their problems together.
When is it Time for Professional Help?
Social supports are crucial. They're not better or worse than professional mental health treatment. Therapy is completely different than listening or friendly advice. Professionals have YEARS of training and experience and know the latest scientifically-supported ways of managing any mental health symptom you can think of (including ones you never even heard of).
Listen. People are really, really, reaaaaally good at dismissing their own mental health problems. You don't need to feed the gremlin inside them that talks them out of the help they need and deserve. So many people think, "It isn't that bad. Other people have it worse, I should stop complaining." And then they live with depression for 10 years because some really well-intentioned helper told them, "you don't have to have professional help, my cousin, Linda, beat depression by eating kale!" Stigma against getting mental health treatment is everywhere, help fight that and encourage people to get care when they might need it. Err on the side of caution. You wouldn't say "ehhh, maybe your arm isn't broken, why don't you wait a few months to see if the searing pain stops?" Don't do that about emotions difficulties.
Be an awesome person. Be the person to tell them that they deserve all the support they need for their mental health struggles, including professional help. They don't need help saying "oh, it'll be fine, I'll handle it." They need help saying, "I need help, I deserve help."
The following are times that it is important for you to recommend that the person get professional help:
When they have expressed feelings of wanting to harm themselves or other people, especially if they've expressed thoughts of suicide, not wanting to be here anymore, or are thinking of death often. (See Coco's Crisis and Suicide Intervention Resources.)
When they are struggling with addiction or substance or alcohol abuse. Even mentioning that they are having a hard time controlling how much they do a behavior or wishing they could cut back but are having a hard time doing so suggest that it is time to find a mental health professional who has experience working with addiction or substance/alcohol abuse. Addictions can include gambling, shopping, videogames, pornography, and more.
When they have voiced feeling severely depressed or severely anxious for a very long time and their symptoms have made it hard for them to function in their life. If they have few social supports, are struggling in school or work, have a hard time with daily hygiene or house chores or other tasks of living their life - it is a good time to recommend professional help because their symptoms are interfering with their ability to function.
When they voice feeling numb, apathetic, feeling empty, not caring, agitated, angry, hateful, resentful, lonely, apathetic, or other such feelings for a long time
When the person says they are concerned that they might have a particular mental disorder it is important that they see a mental health professional to be assessed and be treated. The person is literally telling you "my problems aren't at the no-biggie level, my problems are big enough to the point that I think I have an actual mental disorder." Mental disorder level problems need mental health professional care.
Helping People Who are Helping Themselves
You can be a support. You can be a backup dancer, but the other person has to always be the main person in control of things getting better in their life. You can listen. You can hug. You can be an accountability partner, but if you're trying to help and want to make sure you're being healthy - make sure you're always the co-pilot, never the driver. It's not possible to change things for other people, they're the only ones who can do it, not even a therapist can do it for them.
Stay on Your Own Lawn
Unless you're trying to help your child or are a legal caregiver of a child or adult, you are responsible to other people, not for other people. Other people have the right to make their own choices and set their own path. They are in the drivers seat of their own life. They steer, not you.
They're the Boss of Their Life
Not everything is your business. Not everything is your problem to solve. Not everyone wants your help. People have the right to make their own choices in life, even if you disagree, even if you think or absolutely know those choices aren't the best for them.
They're Allowed to Make "Bad" Choices
People have the right to make their own choices in life, even if you disagree, even if you think or absolutely know those choices aren't the best for them.
You Can't Make Them Do Anything
You can't make them understand. You can't make them get it. You can't make them do the things you think they should do. There is no passcode. There is no secret handshake. You can say and do everything right and people can stick their tongue out at you and walk away. I know. It sucks. But you need to accept this. Not just for your own wellbeing, but for their wellbeing too.
It isn't healthy to try to make people do things. No, not even if you think it is what is best for them. Noooo, not even if you KNOW things will go poorly for them if they don't listen to you. You're having really poor, unhealthy boundaries when you're trying to "make" people do things. Yes, trying to convince them, persuade them, trying to explain to them, etc etc all counts as trying to make them. If you've talked to them about it and they've declined to change or declined help, then it is done. Period. Stay the heck off their lawn. You can ask if they want help again later. Like a while later. But if they decline again, then you still stay on your lawn.
What if Things Get Worse?
Sometimes when other people's problems get big, it makes things more difficult for us. You know what happens when someone else starts going down that road- you often end up feeling like you have to clean up an even bigger mess for them. So it makes a ton of sense that you wanna try to help before things get worse.
The problem is? We can't control other people. We can't "make" someone better. We can't "make" them make better choices. What do we have control over? Ourselves. Our behavior.
Enabling is not Helping
If someone you care about is getting into trouble and expecting you to fix it or "make it all better," it is really hard to look at them, see them suffering and say "no." It's feels almost impossible, especially if we love the person. You've seen them struggle. You've watched them get to the darkest, most trouble places and it frustrates you because they're not doing anything to help themselves. They're not going to therapy, they're not getting treatment, they're not going to addictions treatment, or other places for help.
But here's the thing: if they're not helping themselves, it isn't your job to fix it. You literally CANNOT fix something that is not yours. It isn't your mess, not even if they're your spouse or parent or BFF. It isn't your butt to wipe (Gross, I know. But the analogy fits. And maybe it'll make you hesitate before rushing in to wipe it up next time!).
When we make ourselves responsible for things we aren't actually responsible for, we're being unhealthy. That's how we get drained. That's how we burn out. It isn't healthy to damage ourselves to fix a mess from someone who isn't doing healthy things for themselves. Adding your unhealthy behavior to another person's unhealthy behavior does not somehow magically equal a healthy outcome. That's what enabling is. Enabling is an unhealthy behavior that you do where you protect people from having to face the consequences of their choices or difficulties. They can keep doing unhealthy or problematic things, you keep cleaning up the mess.
Live and Let Live
"This is supposed to be an article about helping people! Not telling them I can't help them! WTF!" Here's the thing. We know we can't wipe other people's butts. We especially cannot wipe other people's butts when they've told us they don't want us to or they don't want to follow our very best booty wiping advice. When we hit that point, the #1 most healthy thing to do is step back. Let them be their own independent, autonomous person. Like the little kid who learns to walk and sometimes falls on their butt, adults need the freedom to learn from mistakes too.
But They're Begging Me to Help?!
You know those cute tumblr pictures of quotes about mental health stuff? Sometimes they're right: You can't set yourself on fire just to keep someone else warm. This is time to say "no." You don't have to be cold or harsh or cruel. You can say no while being empathic and compassionate and kind. Saying no to someone and allowing them to face the consequences of their behavior, even if it hurts them, even if it makes things much worse for them, even if they are evicted and have no where to stay because they spent all their money on an addiction - this is the process of them being able to see that their behavior is a problem.
You are NOT helping people by allowing them to keep doing bad things to themselves and others. You are helping them by saying, "no, I can't be a part of this cycle that has been harming you for a long time. If I clean this up for you, you can keep damaging yourself and your life. It hurts me to be in this situation. It isn't fair to me or you. It isn't healthy for me or you. And I love you too much to be a part of helping you harm yourself like this."
If Saying No Makes it Worse
It doesn't matter if someone begs you to set yourself on fire because they're chilly. You can and should say no. They might get really angry and fly off the handle and say awful things, but you still have to say no. It might make things worse. And, to be honest, it very, very likely will- they might get furious with you, say all sorts of unfair, hurtful things to you. They might get more distressed, engage in even unhealthier behaviors. They might accuse you of not caring or hating them or being a horrible person.
"What if they threaten to hurt themselves or someone else or end their life because they're upset with me setting boundaries?" If someone is in immediate danger, you call the local emergency phone number, like 911 in the U.S. "They'll hate me for calling emergency services on them! They might not ever talk to me again!" Them being alive to be mad at you is much more preferable than them not being alive at all. You still have a chance of them healing, you reconnecting, things getting better when they are alive. You might feel guilt from calling emergency services and upsetting them, but the incredible guilt people feel when they regret not taking action to help someone in crisis who ends up taking their life is astounding. Them being alive and safe is the priority. Period.
So regardless of them acting out, being mad, calling you names, threatening you, threatening to hurt themselves or others, and other things unless you do what they want you to do: this is all verbally abusive behavior. None of this is a reason to do what the person is demanding. If you give in now, you're only teaching the person that "yes, doing awful things to other people is a good way to get what you want" and that is the last lesson you need to teach anyone who is having troubles.
Here's the truth about you when you say "no": you're still a good person. You're being a good healthy, loving, caring person with good healthy boundaries. People making up horrible things about you is definitely not a reason to engage in unhealthy behavior. Being guilt-tripped for things you're not responsible for is definitely not a reason to engage in unhealthy behavior. Verbal and emotional abuse or fear of being abused is not a reason to engage in unhealthy behavior. If the other person has ever physically harmed you or threatened to do so or if you ever fear for your physical safety, contact your local domestic violence hotlines for support to ensure your safety. Being healthy is your #1 priority and safety is square one of being healthy.
Remember: Big Heart + Good Skills + Healthy Boundaries = Success
Go out there with that amazing, big loving heart of yours and your healthy ass boundaries and be a fantastic helper whether you're listening, giving your best advice or sharing your best research info when they ask for it, or making awesome recommendations for professional treatment!
And no matter what: you are responsible TO, not FOR, other people.