Watching pain: How to deal with someone who can't/won't help themselves (addiction, bereavement)
By: Lorraine Hackett
Updated: 05 September 2019
When someone in our lives is struggling, it causes within each of us a particular reaction. Some of us will seek to ‘save’, some will seek to support, some will attempt to ignore. For many of us, our reaction will depend very much on our emotional relationship with the cause of the other person’s struggle. Some of us will have great empathy and sympathy towards grief, for example, but will have a more complex relationship with addiction, perhaps. All of this depends on how we have dealt with these issues ourselves and our projection of what we needed at that time, or imagine we would need should this happen within our lives. It will also depend on our cognitive understanding of each struggle. For example, we may imagine that grief will cause pain to manifest in a certain manner. However, each person’s understanding of grief is individual. The blanket pain of grief does not allow for the nuance of each person’s relationship with the deceased. Sympathising with someone whose parent has passed away does not allow for the layered relationship that the grieving person has. What if their connection with the deceased was flawed and they are left with anger and feelings of betrayal? Anyone sympathising with this person would not be able to know this, but we do need to approach every struggle that we see in another with the basic presumption that we do not know everything about how the other is feeling. Our relationship with their struggle is different to theirs. In almost all instances, it’s worth asking how someone is, rather than presuming that we know.
Lying centrally to the complexity of this issue is another issue. That is how each of us navigates our relationship with someone who is struggling but refuses to seek help, accept help or perhaps even acknowledge that there is an issue.
You may be watching someone that you love change entirely and behave in a manner that seems ‘out of character’ or at odds with our understanding of the person’s moral and ethical code. You can see that this change is happening as a consequence of something tangible that the person is struggling with. However, when confronted in any way, this person will not acknowledge the issue or will seek to minimise the effect and consequence of it. It can feel, to you, that this person will not help themselves.
First of all, it is important to acknowledge what happens to you, as a person, when someone will not accept the offering of support and comfort that we make to them. It is natural to feel rejected and angry as a consequence. For some people, the denial of opportunity to help the other will cause an emotional tailspin where they call into question their entire sense of worth in the world. However, once this first piece is acknowledged, you need to look at how this impacts on the person who is struggling. Are you asking them, as a person who is struggling, to have the response to your offers of assistance that would most vitally help you, rather than help them? If you have an option for helping, which the person struggling cannot commit to at this point, are they helped by your anger, your sense of rejection, your hurt at how they have treated you? Or does your reaction represent, at least in part, your creation of emotional distance between you and this person, in order to distance yourself from the pain and trauma that they are experiencing?
Next, you need to acknowledge that your manner of dealing with a struggle (though it may seem like the most socially-acceptable manner of dealing with this particular struggle… grief counselling, for example, or addiction support programmes) is not the only manner in which to deal with what this person is going with. There are other pieces that you may not be aware of at play (previous trauma, for example, or socio-economic constraints).
The thing about free will is that each of us is free to make the choices that we want to make, particularly when it comes to helping ourselves. Once we approach someone that is struggling with generous love and a non-judgemental stance, all we can do is present options. The other person, painful though it may be, is free to reject our offers of help for as long as they feel that this is the right thing to do. Within this space, the only option open to each of us is to deal with our own sense of hurt, rejection and anger that arises as a consequence.
By Lorraine Hackett
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