We captured a really powerful conversation between Frame therapist Rodman Walsh and our participant Jane on how we can best help and support family members or loved ones struggling with mental health.
Jane shared her personal experience of finding her role and responsibility in her family dynamic and opened up about the importance of boundary setting. We’ve clipped an excerpt from the conversation below along with a Q&A from our community.
[Jane]: I think something that's really important and that could be helpful to anyone who's watching is… and again, this is something that comes from having been an Al-Anon having dealt with addiction in my family, and I've kind of used it for mental health stuff too, is boundary setting is super important. I think boundary setting is a part of mental wellness. It's part of my self-care. You have to set these boundaries or else the lines can become so blurred and you don't know where you end and where this other person begins, or where your mental health ends and their mental health begins.
Rodman: Absolutely. We often have to reset boundaries because they get crossed.
[Jane]: The sand just keeps getting race and redrawn.
Rodman: Yes, by ourselves or by somebody else. But again, when that isn't the familiar way of relationships or familiar patterns, it may take some time and some practice to set and reset boundaries. But it's always a good practice for ourselves so we can advocate for our own mental health.
--- Watch the full discussion with Jane here. ---
Frame Community Q&A
Q: How can I open a discussion with a significant other who takes their anger from depression out on me?
Rodman: This is a really common thing that we see, when our loved ones’ 'internal feelings states’ are expressed as anger. The response I’d give is that sometimes we have to be boundaried in letting a loved one know: I see that you're struggling, or I noticed that you're having a really hard time and I will absolutely support you the best way that I can, but I have to advocate for myself, or I need to let you know that I don't appreciate being spoken to that way, or Maybe I'm not hearing what you want me to hear, but I would really like to understand what you're going through.
Anger is often expressed in ways because we, as the person who might be angry or frustrated, desperately want somebody else to understand us and we just don't know how to do it, or we don't know how to say it. That anger is actually being masked by other things that are below it, like pain and sadness and hopelessness. So hopefully we can be boundaried with our loved ones while inviting them to look at their behavior and have a conversation about what is behind the anger.
Q: My sister's boyfriend is struggling with his mental health and I've witnessed her take on a lot of his problems as well, which has taken a huge toll on her. They have stayed together because she's afraid of leaving him on his own even though she is unhappy in the relationship. How can she be supportive without feeling like it's on her to be responsible for him?
Rodman: Again, that's a great question. I think the theme of this is where to set and how to set appropriate boundaries. In this situation, you want to feel supportive but we can't do the work for other people. We can't be responsible for them. We can be loving and supportive, but as I was kind of alluding to earlier, there is a level of actionable steps in effort for our loved ones who might be struggling to recover and hopefully put their own wellbeing first. We can collaborate with them, we can advocate for them, but often we can't take the steps for them.
Q: How can I help someone who refuses to seek professional help?
Rodman: Again, I would bring it back to What are they experiencing? What are they going through? How do they view themselves that seeking professional help is some kind of weakness, or that they don't need it?
I think we have to give perspective, or allow them to verbalize what their experience is and maybe notice how mental health struggles have impacted their life.
It’s going to be nuanced. It might be multiple conversations depending on the level of severity of how our loved one, or partner, or family member is struggling. What we can do is try to educate ourselves, get the educational tools for them and resources so they can make an informed decision for themselves.
Q: As an empath, I take on the struggles of my friends and also family. I break my own boundaries because I can't help it. Any advice on how not to let it affect me so much.
Rodman: I think that will start with some mindfulness practices. Noticing when those boundaries are getting crossed, and how it happened, paying attention to what that pattern of behavior looks like for yourself. If you find that you’re constantly breaking the boundaries that you’ve put in place, check-in. Know that boundaries will often be crossed! We set boundaries, they get crossed and we reset them, and that's the practice. And part of that is the mindfulness piece, in terms of noticing and being insightful about our behavior.
We notice it and we change it. We notice it and we change it. Some of that is going to simply be the reintegration of the boundary setting. It often might take some time but I think it's also important to show yourself some compassion and some of that empathy and that love that you send out to other people.
Be kind to yourself because we often continue to navigate and learn as we go.
Q: What are things we should avoid saying when trying to be helpful to someone who is struggling?
Rodman: I think it's actually noticing what our own anxieties are for the other person. What is being evoked in us about somebody else struggling? For Jane, she noticed that she was a fixer and that she had a certain way of dealing with things. We have to notice that for ourselves about what comes out for us. So when I say “what's going on with you”, or “stop being like that”, or “aren’t you going to do anything about this?”, that is often our own frustration, our own anxieties of helplessness because we desperately want somebody else to be better. It’s important to note that when we say things like that, and it can really be in any various forms of those examples, the experience of the other person might be that they feel shamed, or they feel judged, and when somebody is not feeling great about themselves when struggling with mental health, our approach may deepen some of those feelings even further.
So again, inviting somebody into a conversation, noticing what their experience is and expressing support in a compassionate way.. those are all helpful ways to join in a conversation and hopefully have a more collaborative approach.
Q: I have a family member who lives in another state that is really struggling with their mental health during COVID. I want to help them through this, but I don't know how to, from afar. Do you have any suggestions on how I can be supportive?
Rodman: I think that's a great question. It's really great to note that mental health through COVID, our collective mental health has really been elevated. COVID has really had a great impact on a lot of folks and because of the isolation, and because of the way that we don't have access to our loved ones and family members in ways that we used to, it's really difficult to try and be supportive. What I would say is express things just like that, and maybe ask some questions about how they can support themselves. Do they have resources or maybe support groups around them where they can connect with people? There's zoom or FaceTime, which is a different experience than just a phone call because we can actually see our loved ones. They can see our expression and we can connect, although it's not the same as connecting in person, there is still that ability to do that.
We can be encouraging with them and invite them to include us in ways that we can be supportive. Hopefully that opens up a conversation and allows for you to be collaborative with how you can be supportive.
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