How to support someone (without trying to fix them)

Kat Nicholls
By Kat Nicholls,
updated on Jun 1, 2023

How to support someone (without trying to fix them)

When a loved one is struggling, it’s natural to want to help – but sometimes trying to fix the problem causes more harm than good

If you’re anything like me, your natural instinct, when faced with a problem, is to fix it. Figuring out the root of the problem, untangling it and finding a solution is incredibly satisfying, but something I’ve learnt time and time again is that not every problem is fixable (and not every problem is my responsibility to fix).

This is especially true when a loved one is struggling with their mental health. A big part of me wants to fix it for them. After all, I’ve written about mental health for nearly 10 years, I have mental health first aid training, I have coaching training – surely I can help, right?

And yes, I can help... to a degree. Having this knowledge is helpful. Having an understanding of mental health and knowing where to find professional support is useful.

The issue comes when I jump into ‘fix-it’ mode when the truth is, mental illness isn’t always fixable and it isn’t something we can do for others. In my experience, trying to ‘fix’ something isn’t only a little useless, it can even be harmful. When you’re constantly offering solutions, it can make the person opening up to you feel like they’re simply not trying hard enough, which isn’t the case.

As I continue to work on my own desire to find solutions, these are the tools I’m using to support, without trying to fix.

Listen, actively

If you’re a fellow ‘fixer’ you may notice when a loved one is telling you about what they’re going through, your mind is racing with ideas that could help. This can pull you out of the moment and actually stop you from fully listening. Active listening is a tool that helps you stay present so you can really hear what’s being said.

The Samaritans share a brilliant acronym to help with this: SHUSH

Show you care
Have patience
Use open questions
Say it back
Have courage

Learn more about these tips and listen to Samaritan’s Lucia Capobianco on our podcast, I am. I Have.

Ask how you can best support them

This is a question I learnt to ask early on in my current relationship. When my partner was going through a tough time and talking it through with me, I would offer solutions and didn’t understand why he didn’t seem responsive. Eventually, I asked, “How can I best support you?” And he told me all he wanted was for me to listen, say “Yeah, that sucks” and give him a hug. Sometimes we just need to be held and told we’re not alone.

Of course, everyone is different, and people may want different things on different days, so try to ask this regularly. If the person says “I don’t know”, remind them you’re there for them and consider signposting.

Signpost to further support

While we may not be in a position to help someone the way we want to, a professional will be better equipped. This is where signposting can help, offering your loved one different options to get support. You may want to offer to join them at a doctor’s appointment, you could direct them to private therapists, or you could share support groups and helplines.

Part of this process is recognising that there really is only so much you can do, which leads me nicely to my next point.

Release the responsibility

The extent to which you can do this will depend on your circumstances, of course, but the amount of responsibility you’re carrying is worth thinking about. The truth is, we often cannot force someone to seek help or do what we think is best. Usually, this decision has to come from the person themselves, and that desire to want help is often the first step to feeling better.

In these instances, it serves our mental health to release the responsibility, especially the responsibility of making someone happy.

Note: You cannot force an adult to get support for their mental health, unless they are eligible to be sectioned

Remember your boundaries

Maintaining boundaries may seem difficult when a loved one is struggling but, in order to stay well ourselves, we have to understand our limits. If you’re currently a listening ear for someone and it’s becoming too much, consider instating some boundaries to protect your energy. This may involve allocating time for support, asking others to help or simply knowing what your limit is and making a plan if that limit is reached.

Look after yourself

When someone we care about is suffering, prioritising ourselves can feel unnecessary. But the truth is, if you don’t look after yourself, you won’t be in any position to support others. Your self-care doesn’t have to be anything grand or time-consuming. It can be as simple as blocking out slivers of time for your hobbies, ensuring you’re eating regular meals, having a good sleep routine and talking about how you’re feeling with someone.

Learn more about self-care for carers.

It’s awful when a loved one is struggling. It’s awful for them and it’s awful for everyone who cares for them. I wish there was a way around that (I really do). Just know that by being there and listening, you’re already doing a huge amount.

Mental illness isn’t a tangled necklace you can fix, but your support and understanding can go a long way in helping the necklace slowly loosen its knots.  

If you’re finding things tough, it can help to speak to a professional (yes, you deserve help too). Learn more and find a therapist at Counselling Directory.

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