What not to do when a loved one is in crisis

In the summer of 2000 I was fired from a job I loved. When I drove to pick up my husband from his job and told him what happened, barely holding myself together, he said simply, “They’re wrong.” He was intending to let me know he was on my side, standing up for me at a time when I was feeling extremely vulnerable, and yet I didn’t find his extremely supportive response satisfying. Why not?

On other occasions, my husband has been upset about some experience he’s had at work. I have offered what I believed to be support: suggestions that perhaps other’s actions weren’t intended in the way he was perceiving them, or maybe things aren’t so bad. He doesn’t always appreciate these suggestions. Why not?

When a loved one is in crisis, they may be looking for responses that they can’t describe. What seems natural or logical to us does not in fact meet the need. We feel helpless and vulnerable because we care so much about this person who is in pain, and our inability to support them properly only adds to our sense of powerlessness. (We might even try to discharge these feelings of vulnerability by blaming them for not accepting our well-intentioned support.)

Before and since my experience of losing my ‘dream job,’ both my husband and I have experienced unexpected losses of jobs, good bosses, parents, and clients. For more than two decades we have wrestled with how exactly to support ourselves and each other through crisis, uncertainty, and pain.

This post is actually disguised as a “how to.” The truth is that I can only share what I’ve learned, what I have learned to do (and not to do) when a loved one is in crisis. But this is an area for trial and error. I hope what I share here can be of use to you.

The Don’ts:

When a loved one is in crisis it’s very natural for many of us to get lost in their crisis. When we do this, we become anxious and start trying to resolve the situation in ways that ultimately do more harm than good. Here are some things to stop doing as soon as you can:

  • Don’t force perspective on them, such as proving that your crisis is or was worse than theirs, or telling them their loss “isn’t that bad.”
  • Don’t force “fine,” such as telling them they will be fine, that things will work out fine, that things are probably fine and they’re blowing this out of proportion, or that this only happened because they can handle it.
  • Don’t force logic of any kind, including the “law of attraction.” Don’t insist that it happened for a reason (no matter what reason might be coming to mind for you). This includes explanations. Even though people in crisis are prone to asking, “Why?” this isn’t really an invitation for an explanation. It’s more like a socially acceptable way of screaming, “NO!!!” If you hear the “Why” question as a “NO!!!” you’ll be more likely to respond effectively.
  • Don’t force solutions. Sometimes we might believe the situation would be resolved if our loved-one’s behavior changed, or if we ourselves intervened. This is not a problem for you to solve. Let it go.

A list of don’ts like that can make us feel pretty helpless. “If I can’t do any of those things, what on earth is left? What am I going to do? Just sit on my hands with my mouth clamped shut?”

That isn’t a bad plan, believe it or not. It’s probably incomplete, but I do have a friend who says when she paid close attention to the don’ts and really worked hard to eliminate those behaviors, she really did feel like she was just sitting on her hands, unable to say anything. She also says she got feedback that she was being “a really good listener.” So, you never know.

But you have to find your own pace–your own rhythm. The above list of don’ts are only part of the story. They are worth paying attention to because so many of us have strong habits to do all of them. Vowing to cut them out is at least a step in the right direction.

In my next post, I offer some positive actions that we can try.

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