I am working with a family now where one of the daughters is consistently making very unhealthy and unsafe choices. She is having a very hard time eating and maintaining a healthy body weight. Her struggle with health impacts her family constantly. Her parents and her siblings are forced to watch her make choices that both jeopardize her mental health but also her life. The pain associated with being in this position is immense. We have all been in this position at one point or another, where a person that we love is making choices that are dangerous or unhealthy. The question at these times becomes, how do we maintain our own health when someone we love is struggling?
I always have empathy when I work with clients that are watching loved ones suffer with unhealthy choices. I have been on both sides several times. I have been asked to observe as the people I love make life-threatening choices, drug-addicted choices, grief-stricken and impulsive choices, and criminal choices. As a psychologist I have witnessed my clients, whom I care deeply for, make dangerous choices over and over again. I have also been on the other side of the equation, where I am the one making the unhealthy choices and forcing those that love me to watch. One period of my life is poignant in regards to this. I was involved in an abusive relationship; I was over exercising, over eating and extremely unhealthy. These behaviors went on for a long time and my family and friends were forced to witness. No matter how many times those loved ones told me I was making unhealthy choices and they wished I would do something differently, I was unable to change until I was ready.
The most helpful perspective I try to encourage my clients to achieve in these moments, when a loved one is suffering and struggling, is a balance between surrender and empowerment. It is certainly a difficult balance to get to, and it takes purposeful effort, each and every day. When someone we love is making unhealthy choices, each day becomes about bringing the focus back to our own health with intention. We must always remember that we are of no assistance to anyone else, especially a person that is suffering, if we are not healthy ourselves.
The surrender part of our health in these moments is very difficult to achieve. It is an understanding that we cannot force our loved one to make better choices. We cannot do it for them. We cannot change their thoughts, behavior or journey. No matter how much it hurts to watch our loved one make unsafe or unhealthy choices, no matter how much we tell them what we expect of them or want for them or wish they would change; the truth is they will not change until they want to. Surrendering is recognizing that people make healthier choices when they are ready, when they are motivated, when they have decided that the change is worth the effort. People make healthier choices on their time, not ours. We can support them, set personal boundaries, provide them with tools but we cannot change for them and we certainly cannot force them to change. We must surrender to our loved one’s freedom of choice and liberty. It is very painful but it is imperative.
The empowerment part is recognizing that your loved one can change. Empowering your loved one to make the changes for themselves is about encouraging your loved one to avoid being a victim and to maintain hope. Putting the responsibility and accountability on your loved one will feel better. It will give the responsibility back to the only person in the equation that has means to make the changes. Reminding yourself that when your loved one is ready to change, they can and they will is the art of remaining positive. It is great to be there with them and be supportive but it is even better to be certain that your loved one can become healthier if they are able to take responsibility for their choices.
The two mantras that I try to help my clients who are watching loved ones struggle achieve are, “I can’t change for them,” and “they will get healthy when they are ready.” These are tough statements to make, they involve letting go of fear, of control, of anger but once achieved they are gifts that you can give to yourself over and over again if you have a loved one that is making unhealthy choices. With these two realizations, you can begin the process of your own healing and health, which will be the most important tool you have to remaining strong for the person you love.