Trying to Help Someone You Love

A not insignificant proportion of people who reach out to me do so because they’re hoping I’ll be able to help someone they care about deeply. A son in his twenties who’s not engaged in life, with a low-skill, low-paying, dead end job. A husband who’s depressed because he’s failed at finding, or doesn’t know how to find, work that will bring in more money. A best friend who’s in a rut.

Over the years I’ve listened to hundreds of stories about the failure of loved ones to thrive, and I would diligently answer the questions posed by the well-intentioned father, mother, wife, or (rarely) husband about the kind of guidance I offer. But I’ve recently put the brakes on doing so. I now tell them that unless the person they want to help is fully on board with receiving the help, the offer isn’t going to lead anywhere. Often I’m assured that the intended recipient is in fact fully on board, but nothing comes of the conversation because the recipient actually isn’t.

Why Isn’t The Recipient Fully On Board?

Why is that? Why wouldn’t someone who’s been struggling with an issue be willing to accept a lifeline? There are a few reasons. The biggest one is shame. Someone who’s “failed to thrive,” and/or failed to meet the expectations of parent or spouse, feels awful about their situation. Being offered the lifeline only reinforces the failure in their mind, and the accompanying shame. Another reason (and often related to shame) is that some of the people being offered help are pretty deeply depressed and when in the grips of depression taking just about any action seems hopeless. And therefore no action is taken, even if it’s gifted by another who thinks that the offer of help will bring results. Finally, accepting the offer of help would be to admit inferiority, inadequacy, dependency, or defeat.

So how can you help? Very generally, I’d advise you to dial down pressure and expectation and try to create space for him to express his self-defeating feelings, listening non-judgmentally and non-reactively. Reaffirming the love that you hold for him and asking if there’s any way you can help are probably the best things you can do. Remember, only the person himself can change his situation. Let him know that you’re ready to offer help when he’s ready for it, but don’t impose your offer on him.

*Note that I’ve used masculine pronouns here. That’s because most of the requests I get for this kind of assistance is on behalf of males (sons and husbands). My guess is that it’s because society has traditionally expected more of males and, although this is slowly changing, it still is the predominate narrative.