My husband and I just returned from a visit with our son, who lives in Dallas. On one leg of our journey, we took an Uber car to the airport where our driver shared that he had just recently returned to school to earn a degree in psychology. He stated that his intent was to go to graduate school, in order to become a child psychologist. I shared with him a bit about my own journey to become a counselor, offered some encouragement and then inquired about his specific interest in children. Our driver told us that his childhood had been difficult. He went on to say that a therapist helped him work through the pain, giving him the tools which enabled him to make better choices. As with many of us in this profession, his desire to make a difference in others’ lives came out of personal experience. This friendly young man then went on to tell us about his brother, also a young adult, still living with his parents and stuck in a cycle of dysfunctional behavior. The driver asked me what I thought he could do to “make” his brother get help.
I’ve been asked this question, or some version of it, many times, and my answer is always the same. We cannot “make” someone get help. So then what can we do when someone we love is clearly suffering, but refusing to take the steps necessary to relieve that suffering? Unfortunately, what often happens is that out of a desire to help, we end up enabling our loved one to maintain the status quo.
What we can do is set up some good, relational boundaries. These boundaries, which keep us from getting caught up in the pain, may actually be the catalyst for change. But how? Is it possible to set such boundaries when, to do so, means we will be forced to say difficult things—even to say “no” when such responses seem to be the opposite of helpful or loving?
I couldn’t help but think of my own, current situation—even as I gave this advice to our young driver. My husband recently injured his arm and has gone through a myriad of treatments—from medication to shots to physical therapy. Out of my desire to be helpful, and because I hate seeing him in pain, I have stepped in to “fix” things rather than let him work through it on his own. The result is that my efforts to help him avoid pain have, quite possibly, increased his recovery time. You see, if we don’t use a muscle, it tends to atrophy. Without use, the muscle continues to weaken, the joints around it lose strength until even the smallest effort becomes too much. Additionally, my husband became more and more frustrated with the situation—and it seemed—frustrated with me for continually stepping in. As we talked through what I had believed to be my helpful and loving endeavors toward his recovery, we both realized my “help” may very well have created the opposite effect. Only when I stepped back and allowed my husband to resume his usual activities—along with continuing treatment—did his arm begin to regain strength. I had to take a step back and watch him work through the pain on his own. Not an easy thing to do when you love someone.
Is someone you love stuck in a cycle of pain and bad choices? Do you find yourself trying to rescue him or her from one bad situation to the next out of a misguided effort to “help” when perhaps what your loved one really needs is for you to step back? Do you find yourself taking responsibility for things that are not your responsibility? If so, the next time you are asked to “help,” stop and ask yourself if your efforts are moving your loved one toward greater independence or if you are creating a situation where he or she no longer has the strength, or the ability, to choose healing?
I believe love calls us to a higher place. Love says I am right here, I believe in you and you are not alone—but only you can do the hard work of getting better.
My Uber driver then asked, “But what if he won’t get help? How can I just stand aside and do nothing?” The truth is hard to swallow, but just as my husband had to do the “heavy lifting” so that his arm would heal, so must we all.
You can point your loved one toward the necessary resources and you can cheer him or her on from the sidelines, but you cannot “make” someone choose healing. Sometimes the best way to love someone is to refuse to come to the rescue, and be willing to hold the boundary line even if he or she continues to flounder, continues to make bad choices, continues to “need help”—just as my husband had to use his muscle in order for it to heal, just as I had to stand back even as I stood close.
As I have found with my husband’s physical injury, so it goes with our internal injuries, loving well may mean recognizing how to occasionally offer a hand, but more often than not, to stand on the sidelines being the voice of encouragement as the one we love fights his or her way to healthier functioning.