As human beings it’s our natural inclination to fix problems. It’s how the best companies in the world start. Identify a problem or a gap in a market, create a solution and see success. It’s hardly surprising then that we want to do the same when we see our friends or family struggling. We want to fix them. We want to make it better. It’s understandable right? Seeing someone we love in pain hurts.
The problem is that often our desire to fix can make us lose sight of a person’s own self- determination. I cannot make someone well. I cannot force someone to stop being destructive. My level of influence is and always will be limited. I need to be humble enough to acknowledge that.
If my desire to fix someone is the driving force in my mind then I need to question my own desire. What is it that I want? For the person to be better? Or for me to be the one who fixes them? Those are not the same thing.
If my greatest desire is for the person to be well then I won’t care how that is achieved. I won’t insist that it’s my advice and my strategy that makes the difference. The person’s wellness will be the ultimate priority.
When writing this blog I reached out to a number of people and asked for the worst advice they had even been given when struggling. Sometimes this advice was given by people who were married to the person struggling. For some it was a parent or a best friend. The point is that sometimes the most hurtful advice can come from the most loving source.
The following list is a mixture of “advice” from people I reached out to. Credit will be given where it is due. I haven't expanded on any of the statements. Have just left them as they were given to me.
“You’ll get over it”
“Real Men don’t cry”
“My personal opinion is that it takes a real man to cry,
It doesn’t mean you’re weak… it makes you bloody strong.”
Anon Female (currently battling severe depression)
“What have you got to be depressed about?”
“Have you prayed about it?”
“The brighter evenings will help, you’ll be able to get out for a walk.
"Sometimes helping is just leaving a cooked meal on my doorstep and saying nothing."
You’ve had everything handed to you – just be positive
If you exercised more that would produce endorphins and you’d feel better.
Anon (whilst suffering domestic violence)
Just stick it out with your husband – you’re married.
Just listen to other people – They know better
"It’s really not that hard- you just have to believe" (when having a faith crisis)
"Just stop making yourself sick and you’ll be fine"
"Plenty of people are worse off."
"You need to get over this because its tough on your parents."
"Give yourself a shake."
"Just get up and get on with it."
Anon (history of depression/eating disorders)
“People used to always just point out how much weight I had lost and I just loved that. It fed my distorted mindset.”
“Just eat something and you’ll feel better.”
“You need to decide if you want the rest of your life to be like this or not.”
The point of this blog is not to just criticize for the sake of criticizing. Mental Health difficulties are so complex. Sometimes even saying "the right thing" can be misinterpreted or taken in the wrong way. Supporting someone in need is a constant learning process.
Let me conclude by sharing an image that I was exploring with a counselor just yesterday at a mental health training event.
Mary is on the couch. Severely depressed. Hasn't got the mental willpower to just "get herself up."
If you walk into the room and see Mary what would you do?
Our natural inclination would be to get Mary off the couch. To say or do the thing that would fix that moment. That would make it better.
Maybe you'd encourage her to get dressed, or go for a walk or maybe first and foremost just stand up.
None of these responses are necessarily wrong. But you see they are not empathetic. They don't get you inside the mind of Mary. They don't help you understand how she is actually feeling.
It may well be that the one thing Mary needs most is someone to get down on the couch with her. To sit in the pain and the mess and the agonizing torment and just be... Be present... Be there... Let Mary know that how she feels is valid. She has the right to feel the way she does. Strive to understand. Strive for empathy.
Mary will get off the couch. She will get dressed and she will go for a walk just maybe not today. But when Mary is ready - not when you are ready - but when she is.