Hand reaching out to young man; helping others who are struggling takes work and wisdom

Helping others when they’re struggling

It’s positive mental health month here at our blog and also in our training at Head.Set.Go! Mostly we talk about things from a personal perspective. But lately we’ve had several questions about helping others when they’re struggling with particular aspects of their mental health, be it friends, family or partners. So let’s consider how and why you might do that.

Why bother?

I’m all for us being there for others. We might want to help others who’re struggling for several reasons. First off, if you care about someone it’s not fun to see them miserable. Although we live in a pretty individualistic world, relationships are core to our wellbeing and most of us inherently get that. Watching a person you care about feel constantly down or stuck isn’t pleasant.

Secondly, how they are affects you. The mood, attitudes and behaviour of people surrounding you’s contagious unless you’re very careful. And it’s unfortunately easier for a drowning person to pull you into their trouble than for you to pull them out!

Finally, if you care about someone you want the best for them. Distracted, lost, angry and ‘just not coping’ humans are the opposites of people living well. So, there’s good reasons for you to care and want those round you to be mentally healthy.

But helping others when they’re struggling with life isn’t easy. You’ll need to understand and respect some healthy boundaries if you proceed.

Leave the heavy stuff to professionals

The first thing you MUST understand is that you may not be enough. If your friend/family member’s just a little flat perhaps you’ll be all that’s necessary. But people with extreme challenges or problems need specialist help. Some things require professional input or intervention. Even if you’re qualified, your loved one may need to access others. There are times those close to us can’t or won’t accept input from us. And if you’re not trained, don’t try helping beyond your level of competency. So, first of all, think this through.

How long and how deep’s the problem? If it’s not big, jump right in. But if it’s massive, leave the heavy stuff to the professionals. That doesn’t put you out of the game, however. Be part of their support crew. A team of helpers will always make a workload lighter. Maybe you can coordinate, or offer specific support at set times or in set contexts. Or be around just to be a friend.

The point is, be wise and care for yourself as you proceed.

Know your limits of influence

The second critical  thing’s to understand and accept just what you might (or might not!) be able to achieve. Your care for your hurting person’s admirable but how much change can you bring? There’s a concept called the circle of influence, and the further from the centre anyone is, the less you’re likely to change someone’s mind or behaviour.

Right in the centre is you. You’re really the only one you’ll ever be able to exert as much control over as you like. Circling slowly out will be your kids (if you have them), your partner, then parents/other family and close friends, next your normal friends, and finally work colleagues, acquaintances etc. The less closeness you share, the less influence of the other person you’re likely to have. We may not like that, but it’s the truth.

There’s a few things which can adjust this influence circle slightly, however. People younger than you will probably be easier to influence, and those with whom you have some kind of authority relationship also have better odds of seeing change (just so long as that authority’s accepted). Finally, some personalities are much better at selling/coaxing/cheering/motivating, and that’s worth being aware of too.

The bottom line’s that our greatest freedom as people’s our ability to choose. You should accept that, however much you wish, you may not be able to bring about all you desire to when it comes to helping others when they’re struggling. Please do still try, but don’t be unrealistic.

So, where do you start?

Here’s five ways you could have some positive influence in the life of your hurting friend or family member.

1.Keep sight of the bigger picture

One of the things I’ve noticed about the times I struggle is that I get caught up in the little things. Sometimes obsessively so. It’s very easy to overplay the black and bad bits of what’s going on and forget that all of life’s not like that all the time. One of the greatest gifts you can offer is to be the person who remembers the good in life and points it out to them. In a subtle way, mind you!

2. Watch you don’t lecture or seem the know it all

In trying to help others when they’re struggling it’s unfortunately easy to come across as lecturing. I’m sure we don’t intend to, but to counter those intense negative feelings we can feel rolling out of our loved ones we sometimes revert to platitudes. Or make generalised (true but unhelpful) statements. Or act like we’ve got it all together.

Nothing puts those we care off faster, so do your best to make your words and actions a ‘coming alongside’ rather than an arrogant kind of dump. You don’t know it all and you don’t have it all together. Some days you feel miserable too. So be deliberate and choose your spoken words with care. And make sure you back your talk with actions that match your words.

3. Be a learner yourself

Flowing from the above point, remember you’ve still got a way to go too. Be on the lookout for times you can learn and improve your own life. Keep trying different things and adopt new good practices you find along the way.

If you think there’s some training your struggling friend would benefit from, why not offer to do the training with them? You can do the signing on, talk the opportunity up and provide the energy for the occasion. Take the initiative when your buddy won’t, and bring them along with you. That way, you both stand to benefit – and you’ll gain something even if they choose not to.

4. Don’t indulge wallowing

In my experience, the smaller and worse we feel, the smaller and worse we start behaving. So, bad turns into terrible and feeling flat becomes miserable, and soon we’ve got ourselves stuck in awful feelings and destructive thinking. If you’re wanting to help others when they’re struggling, it’s easy to think that asking them to tell you about their situation’s being sympathetic. It is, but unfortunately it’s not likely to help them.

The more someone goes over and over a thought or feeling, the more they’re embedding it into their brain. Those stronger feelings then pop up again more easily than other, weaker ones. What this means is that the more air play bad feelings get, the more real they’re going to seem. And how many proactive and positive actions do you take when you’re down like that? Yes I know. Me neither.

If you want to be truly helpful, try some tough love. This feels hard to action but ultimately does more good. So, when your person starts moaning, decide not to indulge that. Distract them, deflect their thoughts or problem solve with them instead. (You may want to think about what each of those looks like in advance.) See what you can do to lessen the negative messages running in their heads by re-writing alternative thoughts instead – even though they may not thank you (yet!!)

If this feel’s too hard, start working this strategy on a 1:1 pattern. Allow them the weep once, but the next (second) time rebuff it with either a deflect, distract or ‘how could you fix that?’ question. Repeat. Over time move to one whinge to two alternatives, then stretch it to 1:3. And so on. Eventually you’ll have a healthier relationship and a happier person.

This is a pretty radical idea, but if you truly want to help it’s worth understanding.

5. Enable their power of choice

When someone’s miserable or flat, they’re not likely to care about anything much at all. It’s so easy to step in and make all the decisions for them! Sometimes you really have to, but please avoid it if you can.

Although it’s not widely appreciated, making decisions is about the biggest thing we have in humankind’s favour. Making choices helps us feel good, as well as in control. By default, someone else taking that right and making our decisions swings us back to feeling powerlessness. Not what you want, because it’s already too easy for your unhappy other to feel worse!

Do what you can to continue allowing your hurting person to take some ownership of their life and shape it for themselves. Even if it’s the childhood training version, let them make decisions. What do I mean by that? Well, you pre-determine two good options and ask them to pick which one they’d prefer. Since either outcome’s fine, they’ve made a good choice! Shall we have salad or veggies tonight? Go for a walk or sit in the park? You get the idea….

The Art of Having a Good Day

Over at Head.Set.Go! (our sister training site) we’ve just released a training module called ‘The Art of Having a Good Day.’ It’s a single session 30 minute video covering some key ideas on how to live one day at a time and do it well. All our sessions build your awareness of how know ‘facts’ from research might affect you, discuss important attitudes to help you move forwards and then suggest how to build your abilities in this area. If you or someone you’re trying to help might benefit, go check it out. If you jump quickly, you can get it for 50% off,  or $14.99. Enter the code GOODDAYS until November 1. However, even at full price, it’s still good value.

Good on you for being a person who cares, and who’s even interested in helping others when they’re struggling. I hope adding today’s ideas to your good intentions will make both you and the one you care about healthier and happier. And just remember, even being there and caring’s a good contribution for you to be making.

Here’s to a better world for us all!