You probably regularly come across people who need professional help. They may be in the midst of a crisis, an important relationship isn’t working, they are emotionally unstable or their behavior is erratic. When drugs or alcohol are involved, especially around children, then it’s critical to take action.
However, it’s not easy to say to someone “I think you should see a therapist.”
It may offend them, shame them or disrupt your relationship. Your friend may hear: “You think there’s something wrong with me” and get angry, defensive or vehemently deny there’s a problem.
Rarely does a direct approach work in these circumstances.
To get the outcome you want, you need to attentively listen to the person complain about the problem in order to find a non-confronting way in. Focus on normalizing the problem — making it seem like a normal, everyday behavior — and creating an alliance with the person. Do not be tempted to offer advice, which comes across as “I’m normal; you’re not.”
For example, if you hear your friend complain about a relationship, you might say something like: “I know what you mean; I’ve come across that before. You know, I was reading something about that just the other day and I found it very informative. Would you like me to send you the link?”
Once your friend feels like you’re on her side and she doesn’t feel “bad” or “wrong” about having the problem, you can enter into a second level of encouragement, such as: “I’ve heard from a friend that “X” is a real expert in this area and deals with this stuff all the time. I’m even thinking about seeing her myself. I wonder what she would make of it? She might help to give you a different perspective.”
A gentle and sensitive approach works well to open another up to alternative ways of viewing the problem. This is especially the case when you are the main support person and your friend is leaning way too heavily on you. You may be feeling overwhelmed and not know what to do. The advice you give is unhelpful and it seems like your whole relationship revolves around the problem. You never discuss anything else, your own needs are ignored and you can’t cope with the hour-long phone calls late at night anymore. So how do you say: “I’ve had enough” in an effective and compassionate way?
As a rule of thumb, consider if this problem is something that an adult could and realistically should take responsibility for. After all, the problem is hers, not yours. Reflect on what is happening within you that is allowing you to be so put upon. Are you a “knight in shining armor”? Do you have a need to be needed? Are you driven by a desire for control?
A careful consideration of the secondary gains you might be receiving from participating in a draining relationship is an essential first step. What started out as you “doing the right thing” ends up dragging you down and it’s serving neither you nor the person you are “helping.” You have gone beyond kindness into neediness as well as denying her the opportunity to take responsibility for her own growth.
Therefore, it’s in both your best interests to implement a firm boundary and allow another, more objective person to step in and help, either for her alone or both of you. A way out is to listen carefully for a request for something that you are unable to provide. For example, if she comes to you with an issue that is out of your depth (e.g., domestic violence), say: “I don’t know that I can be of much help there. This problem is out of my depth. However, I do know someone who knows a lot about that sort of thing — how about I get her to give you a call? She might suggest something I haven’t thought of.”
Then institute an appropriate referral as soon as you can. The sooner you can allow her to get appropriate help, the sooner you can breathe, relax and heal.