This is written for the good-intentioned people who want to be helpful, but often get frustrated when things don’t work out in their attempts to help…
The ones who feel a need to speak the truth plainly, and deliver those words with love. They feel the need… the duty within themselves to look out for someone they care about. Everyone deserves to hear the truth.
To these people, I’d like to shed some light on how the plain truth, and the love you’re wanting to send is wrongly timed, and often times not well-received in that moment. Sometimes unfiltered [brutal] honesty can become more harmful than helpful.
Arriving At the Scene of An Accident
Imagine your loved one was speeding down the road, really stressed out about something. They were so focused on the issue in their mind that they failed to see the STOP sign and a car who had the right of way ran right into their side of the car. They are in so much pain, and obviously overcome with guilt for the mistake they made. Not only has their wrong decision hurt themselves, but has hurt an innocent person.
You, being the well-intentioned and informative person come rushing to their side. As they lay on the stretcher, on their way to get the help they need to heal, you inform them of the plain truth, packaged with love (because you do love them):
“I just feel that it’s important for you to know that you were speeding. You missed the stop sign, and had you not been speeding and missed the stop sign, you wouldn’t have hurt yourself and wouldn’t be in pain. Not to mention that what you failed to do correctly, cost another person a great deal of money – not to mention they are deeply hurt too. You need to realize that you’re not the only person on the road, and you need to be watchful of everyone around you.”
All of that isn’t untrue, right? You’re telling them those things because you care, and if you didn’t care – you wouldn’t have said those things out loud to them… right?
What Your Loved One Needed
What would have been more helpful would have been for you to hold their hand and let them know that you are so grateful they are alive.
Here’s the thing about when to share truth, when is it beneficial, and what’s the goal in sharing?
Does ALL truth need to be said out loud?
No. It does not.
Just because it’s true, doesn’t mean that it’s necessary to say it out loud.
Trust that they already know the truth. Like in the case of this example, don’t you think that person you care about already realizes they’re in pain? That they just got hit by another car – and that other person is likely hurt too?
Little kids may need things explained to them, but most teens and adults are already fully aware of what they should have done and need to do. Give them the benefit of the doubt.
Helpful vs. Hurtful
You’re walking down the sidewalk and you see an overweight woman buying an ice cream cone. You feel that if you were trying to lose weight, you would want someone to remind you of your health goals. Because from your personal experience, you know that you feel so much happier in life fit and healthy. The woman pays for her ice cream cone and goes to take her first bite and you rush to her side and tell her, “I know you don’t know me, but I’ve been in your shoes before. I know that I am so much happier being thin, and I feel like I just can’t walk by and let you eat something that isn’t good for you. I can imagine that you are wanting to lose weight.”
This woman is speechless, and immediately walks over to the trash can and drops the ice cream cone in the bin and walks away. You feel good having done something for someone else that you felt they needed to know, and you carry on walking to your car.
What you didn’t know was that this woman just got outside for the first time in months. She has been working with her therapist on how to not starve herself to lose weight. Her therapist, in her best effort to encourage her to go outside and be around people, to reassure her that not all people look at her as a failure, asked her “what is one thing that you are most afraid to eat?”
“Why?” Her therapist asked…
“Because my ex-husband told me that I was a disgusting pig whenever I ate ice cream. But it was one of my favorite childhood memories, eating ice cream with my dad. I miss it.”
Her therapist made a deal with her in an attempt to help ease her anxiety about being out in public, and also encourage her to learn that food isn’t the enemy, and not everyone looks at her that way.
Now think about this. You, a well-intentioned person who felt you were doing this woman a service by helping her achieve what ‘you assumed’ was her goal – and felt this way because that is how you would want someone to treat you.
Instead of helping her, you reinforced her anxious belief that everyone looks at her like an overweight woman who is failing. Unfortunately, you did the opposite of helping her.
What This Woman Needed
The better, more helpful thing to have done, would have been to simply say “hello”, smile at her, and walk on by. She would have been reminded that she is someone worth being smiled at, and her environment outside is safe.
Your teenage son has been struggling with self-hate. Even though he has won all the awards at school, he’s getting straight-A’s, he doesn’t feel that he’s doing enough. When he receives praise from his family members, he just interprets these praises as “yeah, you have to say that because you’re family, you just feel obligated to say those things.”
In his mind, he feels the pressure from his parents to do everything above and beyond. Any time he failed to score a goal at soccer, his parents would say “we just need to practice more”. Any time he got an A- instead of an A, his mother would say, “well, maybe you just need to study more earnestly. Have more faith.”
There was this persistent pressure in his mind that he would never do enough to earn and be worthy of the praise of others. These thoughts turned into, “He would never be enough”. It eventually turned into an unbearable feeling of: He would rather die than fail–ever.
This child, who is getting a 4.0 at school, receiving academic awards and trophies in sports, is feeling like he’s failing!
He learned at a school assembly about mental health that when you’re having these feelings, you need to reach out to your parents for help. He felt a moment of bravery that evening and sat his parents down at the table.
Trembling inside, because he feels so much pressure from his parents to be his best, appear his best—don’t show weakness – show excellence – be an example to others… with trembling words and fear in being vulnerable, said, “I am having these thoughts of not wanting to live. I don’t want to be alive anymore.”
His mother and father were speechless. They themselves were wondering in what ways they may have failed him or contributed to him feeling this way. They then felt that this might be just ‘typical teen mood swings’… It’s normal. All teens at some point feel like ‘life sucks’, right? … After a long pause, his mother responded, “Well… when I have had feelings like that I often find that I’m not doing enough for others. Or that I am doing something wrong. Maybe you just need to get outside more.”
This boys heart broke, because once again – he was reminded that he wasn’t doing enough. Hearing his mother say that, he internalized it to mean that he will always feel this way, because he feels like there’s nothing left to give. It’s hopeless.
He stood up and walked back to his room. His parents followed and his dad said, “Hey champ, we’ll go running in the morning. You’ll feel better after a good run.” His mother added, “After we all run together, we’ll go shopping. You’ll feel better in a good pair of shoes. I always feel better in new clothes! You’ll feel better too. I just know it. Hey, and maybe after you win that game on Saturday, we’ll go camping!” His father added, “I always feel better when I get out, you’ll feel better to.”
After his parents left, he wrote a note on his phone for his parents to find that said:
“I don’t want to run. I don’t want to do sports. I can’t do everything you want me to do, because I am terrified of failing. I can’t stop these feelings of being a failure, because it constantly feels like it’s never enough. I feel like if I don’t get perfect grades, if I don’t win the games, I’m not worthy of your love. It’s never enough, and I am so tired. I am so tired, I just can’t live a life where I feel this way. I’m sorry that I’ll never be the son you were expecting me to be. It’s too much.”
That night he felt the only option he had left to stop the emotional pain was to end his life.
That was not his only option. He needed a different kind of help. A source of help where his real and honest feelings could be heard, and learn how to see that he was enough, he didn’t have to earn the love of others. He was doing enough, and will always be enough.
What the Boy Needed
These well-intentioned parents were looking at their sons issues as if they were their own, and while in a solution driven panic, immediately thought of what would ‘fix it’ based on what they would want instead of what he needed as his own person, with his own issues – not theirs. That’s why their best attempts failed.
Because while it is true that at the root of depression, getting outside in the sunshine does help (that’s true), eating healthy, serving others, getting enough sleep, including spiritual nourishment daily (i.e. meditation, prayer, etc), having goals to strive for, these are all GOOD things that do help! What he really needed, was reassurance that he already was doing enough. He wasn’t a failure. Much of what he’s feeling and why he’s having those feelings, is not his fault. It’s not for a lack of trying that he’s feeling depressed. It could be only behavioral, or a much deeper issue causing him to struggle with those emotions (i.e. chemical imbalance in the brain, anxiety, psychiatric disorder or neurodevelopmental disorder).
The best solution would have been to connect him with a trained professional *therapist who would fill the role of a third-party unbiased person who he knows has zero expectations of him. This person would not be looked at in his eyes as someone he would disappoint or have to impress, or always appear happy. He could unload all his pain and thoughts to them and not feel an obligation to be at his best or perform in any role. Just someone who would hear him, let him talk about anything, and their only goal would be to work together on strategies of how to feel better, and discover ways to feel like life is worth living. They would look to his needs, based on his experiences and his feelings and beliefs.
He cannot accomplish that with his parents only, because in his eyes these are people who he feels a constant threat of disappointing. He needs to learn from someone else how to view his parents as people who are simply just wanting the best for him, and they themselves are still learning and feeling a lot of pressure to not fail too.
*Not all therapists are the same. If your first, second, or even third therapist doesn’t feel like a ‘good fit’ – there will always be someone out there who will feel right. Keep looking! Also keep in mind that there are several different types of therapy, not all therapy is the same.
How to Help Without Failing
1) First thing to remember is that you will never have all the solutions. You have never been expected to have all the solutions, not even as a parent. The only person who is expecting perfection from you— is you.
2) The more simple the response, the more likely you are to be successful. Most of the time people just need to feel like they are heard, and that they are enough as they are. Everyone to some degree feels pressure to be their best, and have some level of fear of failing. Many of us struggle with ‘the disease to please’. So it’s best to practice giving others the benefit of the doubt that they already know they have made mistakes, and they already know what they need to do.
3) When someone mentions they don’t want to live, or they wish they were not alive – NEVER dismiss those comments by saying “you just need to get out more” or “maybe you’re doing something wrong in your life to feel that way?”. If they are your child or your spouse, seek professional help immediately. DO NOT try to resolve this on your own, because YOU are someone they don’t want to disappoint and feel a lot of pressure to and guilt to please you. The best person for them to talk to is someone who is trained with the skills to help others navigate their mind and problem solve why they are having these feelings.
If you or a loved one is feeling suicidal, or you may feel they, or you, might be a danger to yourself, please call 911 or reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255…You can also text ‘HOME’ to 741741 to reach a Crisis Counselor if you’re feeling like texting would be easier than talking on the phone.
4) Be a support, be willing to learn how they feel and the reasons why they may be having those feelings. You can begin learning the why behind the behavior by reading books, joining support groups, and maybe consider learning together with them. In some cases, if they feel comfortable with you joining them at therapy, being willing to hear them out – without judgment or appearing defensive – allowing them to share their feelings openly in a safe space can be an incredible gesture of support and love. You don’t have to agree, or even understand… just be willing to hear them out, and learn how to validate their feelings (even if you don’t agree with some things they may be saying – THEIR experience is real to THEM, and they need to know that you believe it is real for them).
5) AVOID looking at their struggles like they were your own, because what may work for you may not be what they need. Be willing to believe their experiences are real to them, and begin practicing being OK with not fully understanding.
It’s OK to not understand. It’s OK to not have all the answers or solutions. It is NOT OK to invalidate someone’s feelings or experiences because your life looks and feels differently.
Always remember that there is always a story behind behavior, and you won’t ever fully know or understand that story. Allow people to be on their own journey, and practice focusing on your own and live as an example for others to follow [if they choose to].
A great book to consider reading on this point is ‘What Happened to You?‘, written by Oprah Winfrey & neuroscientist and child psychologist Dr. Bruce D. Perry.
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