When Loved Ones Are Struggling Emotionally
Life is a process of emotional struggle. All of us get down at times, and it can be pretty tough to pick ourselves back up, dust our egos off and move on. But what do you do when it’s not you who’s struggling?
What if it’s someone you care about very, very much?
If you have loved ones with family problems, friends with career troubles or a partner who’s just going through it, it’s important to know how to help them while they’re struggling emotionally. The problem is, most people go about the process of helping people all wrong.
Here are three real—and not-so-common—ways to encourage those around you to live up to their best selves and realize their true potential.
What to say to someone who is struggling emotionally
1. Don’t tell loved ones they’re struggling emotionally
You know that urge that comes up sometimes—the one where you’ve just got to tell someone they’ve got snot hanging out of their nose? Or that they’ve been mispronouncing the word “prodigal” for the past six years, and it’s really starting to get on your nerves?
Pointing out to people that they’re struggling is a bit like that. Sure, it can feel important, even necessary, to let your loved ones know they’re not at their best lately. But what exactly does that accomplish? (Other than making them feel worse than they already do, that is.)
The truth is, people who are struggling usually know they’re struggling. They’re the guardians of their own minds, after all, and they’ve probably spent more time thinking about their problems than you have. That’s why telling someone they’re not doing well doesn’t do much: it just reinforces the negative thoughts they already believe about themselves.
Worse, telling someone they’re doing terribly might make them bitter, angry, resentful or standoffish. They certainly won’t want to open up to you about their problems and difficulties if you tell them they’re screwing it all up.
(This is a good time to note: of course it makes sense to want to point out someone’s struggles, family problems, relationship difficulties with loved ones, etc. You want to be the one to say, “Hey, you’re not doing so well. How can I help?” But, again, this is a no-go from a helpfulness standpoint. Why? Because you’re better able to help others when they don’t think you’re doing it out of a place of pity or superiority.)
2. Focus on strengths, not problems
Instead of zeroing in on what’s wrong with your loved ones, try zeroing in on what’s right. What is this person really good at? What makes them awesome? What do you admire about them?
When someone is going through a tough time, they need reminders of who they are at their best, not their worst. Think about what they’re extremely proficient at, and help them seek out more of it.
Think about the kinds of experiences the two of you can have together. If they’re good at sports, invite them to play basketball at the local court. If they’re a chess wizard, play a game over coffee. If they’re a great conversationalist, a wonderful karaoke singer, a top-notch cook…
You get the picture. This doesn’t mean you have to pretend problems don’t exist in the world. Of course they do, and this person is probably dealing with some really tough stuff. But does it need to be your job to rehash everything that’s not going well for them?
Instead, use time spent bonding as a way to help the person who’s struggling emotionally restore some of their confidence. Should they choose to talk about what’s going on, then be there to listen, reassure and help.
3. Work on yourself
We all get “eyes off our own paper” syndrome sometimes. We end up getting involved in the intricacies of someone else’s life, even when we can’t directly impact what’s going on. This is often true for those of us who are worried about someone who is struggling emotionally.
Here’s what to do instead. Rather than spending all that time worrying (which may feel appropriate but accomplishes nothing), you can be more productive with the time allotted to you.
Instead of worrying, you can work on yourself.
What does this do? For one, you can work on yourself in ways that the person who’s struggling emotionally can benefit from. If they’re going through a messy divorce, becoming a better cook means you can bring them nice meals from time to time. If they’re dealing with big problems at work, being a more available friend (and calling once or twice a week just to let them vent) is a huge help.
Plus, there’s another side to working on yourself: it makes others want to work on themselves, too.
That’s right! Have you ever witnessed a friend, parent, family member or spouse become really committed to self-improvement? It was inspiring, wasn’t it? It made you want to reassess your own growth, right?
Working on yourself is kind of the inverse of telling someone they’re not doing well. Instead of putting the blame and “onus of improvement” on another person, you’re leading by example. By committing to making a better life for yourself, you’re saying, “I’m doing this really cool thing with myself. Would you like to join me?”
No pressure. No stakes. No pity parties or pointing out others’ flaws. Just a warm, open invitation to work on yourselves together.
To help someone who is struggling emotionally, help yourself
I understand that this isn’t exactly your typical “how to help others” post. There’s nothing in here about holding someone’s hand and telling them how much you’ve noticed their decline; there’s no intervention going on.
But that’s why this article is important. It encourages a different way of looking at the people around you. Instead of thinking of them as helpless or incapable of meeting life’s demands, it reconstructs them as smart, competent people, who can absolutely tackle what’s in front of them.
Think about it: how would you behave if your friend, family member or partner saw you as brilliant, confident and capable? You’d be more encouraged to pick yourself up and drag yourself out of an emotional hole, wouldn’t you?
Try it today and see what happens.