What do we do when it feels like our loved ones are struggling and we don’t know how to help? How can we show up when their struggles feel painful or harmful to our wellbeing? How do I manage supporting someone else when I am feeling drained and exhausted myself? Why can’t they see all the positive things in their life instead of only focusing on the negatives? These are all questions I get asked on a regular basis from loved ones when they are in a relationship with someone who struggles with mental illness. First off, it feels like this past year has triggered individual’s (I would argue everybody’s) mental health in unprecedented ways. Our capacity to cope and function has been tested and we are having to figure out who we are and how we have changed under these circumstances. When a loved one is struggling, the very first person we have to check in with is ourselves. It is important that we know what our own limits and boundaries are because otherwise our own wellbeing will suffer under the weight of our loved one’s struggles. You need to know what type of support you feel able and prepared to offer, as well as the gentle and kind expectations you have of them to take their own suffering seriously. Once you are clear on this, make sure you share your boundaries. So often we shy away from talking about our limits because it feels cold to tell people the ways you aren’t prepared to sacrifice yourself for them. It is possible that this conversation could bring up a mixed reaction as they will potentially feel guilty or angry that their struggles require you to set limits. This is normal and okay and while it is hard to do this, we want to make sure we hear them out fully. They are allowed to feel however they are feeling, AND we are still allowed to set boundaries for our own wellbeing. Once it is clear, I would recommend writing your limits out for you and you alone. Your job is to check back in with yourself to see if you are still following through with your commitment to yourself. Remember, we can’t help anyone if we drown ourselves in the process.
Once our boundaries are clear, then your biggest goal is going to be remaining curious. Their struggle isn’t going to progress if we are always telling them how to change or we don’t actually try to get to know their experience. Instead, ask them what this experience is like for them, encourage them to share the highs and lows. Sometimes there are easy things someone can do to help make it better. If this is the case, check in with yourself first and then see if you can deliver. If not, ask them what they can do to get their needs met. Remaining curious shows an openness to listen without taking on the problem solver role. Remember, people need help but the more we rescue them, the harder it is for them to learn how to move themselves forward in the direction they want to go.