My friend is going through a really rough period in her life. She is in the process of getting divorced, and is living alone for the first time in 15 years. She lost her passion for anything. She used to love cooking and eating but now has no appetite. She used to take art classes and spend her time creatively, now she just feels like sleeping or watching Netflix.
She’s lost her spark.
She’s depressed but she’s not doing anything to get help. She doesn’t want to speak to a therapist or be on medication or do anything in particular about it.
At first I wanted to fix it for her.
I suggested all the books and healers I’ve read that helped me through rough times. But I soon discovered that my advice wasn’t welcome. Every time I brought up what she could do to change her situation she got defensive.
She didn’t want to try to make it better. She wanted to just be in it. She thought I was trying to coach her, and she just wanted me to be there for her as a friend.
As a coach who has dedicated my life to self-growth and transformation– hearing that she didn’t want to do anything to change her situation was difficult for me to understand.
I learned that when someone is going through a rough time whether they are grieving or depressed– there is no timeline for “getting over it.” And our impatience never helps hurry things along. It only makes it worse.
Of course it is our love for them that makes us want to heal their pain. It is our love that wants to show them the bright side of life that they may have forgotten.
We think, “If only they could see the potential we see for them. If only we could talk them into a more hopeful place.”
Unfortunately life doesn’t work that way.
Wishing for things to be different doesn’t make it so. And we can’t carry other people’s pain for them. (Well I suppose we can, but I’m sure we have enough of our own to carry around that we may just break our back doing double time).
We can’t take responsibility for anyone else’s life but our own. But there are still ways we can be supportive.
Here are a few I have found helpful in my own relationship and I would love to hear which ones resonate most with you.
#1 Meet them where they are.
The truth is we can only help those who want to be helped.
One of the most profound things I learned in my coaching training was this:
“When we are confronted with moving forward, we are also confronted with allowing other people to be exactly where they are.”
Accept that they are where they are. It is not a reflection of you as a family member or a friend. It is their process, their time, their journey and you can’t rush them along or expect them to see life through your unique lens.
If they initiate and ask for the number of a coach or therapist by all means share it. If they need a lift to a doctor’s appointment by all means offer it. But if they are not actively trying to change where they are, then let them be where they are.* Meet them there.
*Unless they are under 18, a threat to themselves and in your personal care.
#2 Be empathetic and compassionate
This is different than sympathy where you look down on someone suffering as “aw poor you” or minimize how they’re feeling by saying, “at least you still have _____.”
Instead of silver lining their pain, this step is about being with them in their pain. Knowing that pain is a human condition. It is something we all know in one form or another.
You might want to share the times you felt sad, alone or hurt. What was that like for you?
It takes courage to be vulnerable, but it also allows you to connect with that person on a deeper level.
This isn’t about comparing your wounds, or trying to change it for them. This is about speaking from your own heart about a time when you also felt what they might be feeling, even if circumstances were different.
The idea here is that they are not alone in their pain. If they think they are the only one’s suffering, that isolation can breed shame.
But the moment they hear that you (and the rest of the world) have been through painful moments– it provides some consolation that we are all human. That pain is part of the human condition and we all suffer at different points in our lives. It doesn’t mean we have to go through it alone or that it has to be a constant in their lives.
#3 Validate their feelings.
Have you ever had the experience of expressing how you feel and have someone tell you it wasn’t true or it didn’t happen that way?
I remember sharing a childhood memory with my sister once and she responded with, “What are you talking about? It didn’t happen that way. How can you say that?” It made me feel so low.
I spiraled into self-doubt and felt utterly misunderstood and it took me a long time to share my own feelings with her again.
You invalidate feelings when you reject, ignore, deny or judge another person’s feelings. When you say things like, “Don’t cry.” “Why can’t you get over this already?” “You’re overreacting.” “You’re oversensitive.” Or “It wasn’t that bad.”
On the other hand validating feelings is all about allowing the other person to feel heard and understood. You can validate their feelings by allowing them to safely share how they feel with you. When you validate, you reassure them that you accept how they are feeling.
Validating is not the same as agreeing. Their perspective and emotions might be different than yours but when you can listen to them with empathy and openness, you show them you care and help nurture your relationship.
You can validate in a few ways:
You can gently nod as they speak showing you understand them and you can be patient when the other person is not yet ready to talk.
You can also validate how they feel by mirroring (repeating) back to them what they are saying.
If they say: “I'm really struggling"
You echo what they say.
“It sounds like you're really struggline.”
You don’t say: “It sounds like life is really depressing.”
You don’t say: “Look at the bright side, it isn’t that bad.”
They say “struggling”, you say “struggling.”
It’s very important not to insert your own words or give your own interpretation here. It seems simple and silly but it can make a world of difference.
#4 Love them as they are
We are always trying to lift people up to where WE are. How generous of us! We don’t want them to be sad. Why not? Well it makes us sad to see them sad.
Being sad might mean they’re a downer to hang out with. We secretly think, “Get over it!” “Be happy already!” “Do something to fix this!” “Stop being so selfish!”
But lifting them up to our level is not actually possible for them at the moment.
It’s hard to be told to be somewhere other than where they are.
All you can do is love them as they are, where they are, without trying to change it for them. (Unless they ask you for help, their life is in danger or they are under 18 and in your care).
If your need more suggestions, here are some other ones from my personal experience of what you can do for this person who is suffering:
It’s in the little things
Set limits on what you are able to provide
Seek support yourself
Know that you are not alone and there are millions of people who are going through this and are affected by depression daily.
For further resources check out:
Depression in men: http://headsupguys.org
Depression in families: http://www.familyaware.org/
Peer support for people with depression: http://www.depression-understood.org/
Cognitive behaviourial skill building: https://moodgym.anu.edu.au/welcome
Note: This post does not replace professional medical or psychological advice. It is from my own personal experience of what has worked for me. When in doubt, ask for help and start by making an appointment with a psychotherapist.
I would love to hear your ideas or what good support has looked like for you or how you have helped to support your loved ones going through a painful period in their lives. Please share your stories in the comments below.