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Family Member in Trouble

Seeing a family member make decisions that you know will only bring them more suffering is painful.  You love them and desperately want them to be well, and want a sense of peace in your family.

When a family member is caught in something as serious as alcoholism, depression, or a violent relationship, it's easy to feel overwhelmed.  Your mind spins stories about what s/he should be doing or the perfect thing you could say to change him or her.  You might find yourself expressing this by saying, "You are being irresponsible. You need to act like an adult!" Or "You know you are an alcoholic and you're being stubborn about getting help.  You have got to admit this!" 

You may also shift to the other extreme.  You tell yourself, that his or her behavior shouldn't affect you.  That you can't change her or him so you should just not say anything.

The good news is you still get to have your feelings and needs even when your family member is suffering and having difficulty meeting his or her needs. 

The fact is, your family member's behavior affects you.  You can express this directly and make a request.  Here is an example:

"When I hear you say you were up all night drinking and feel sick today, I worry about your well-being. I wonder if you would be willing to go to bed early tonight and get a full eight hours of sleep?"

There are four elements in this expression that increase the probability of both being heard and getting needs met for both of you.

1. You refer to only one event.   You resist the temptation to build a case by listing all the unhealthy behaviors you have observed recently.

2.  You refer to that one event in neutral terms.  You resist the temptation to build a case by adding in your evaluations and judgments.

3.  You reveal your feelings and needs rather than telling the other person what is wrong with her or him.

4.  You make a simple, specific, and do-able request.  You can't help someone beat alcoholism with edicts about who s/he is or all the many things s/he should do.  You can help someone work toward health by offering something in the moment that is one baby step in that direction.

If you are struggling with a family member's behavior, take a moment now and connect to your own feelings and needs.  What simple and do-able request could you make that would begin to meet your own needs and also contribute to his or her well-being?

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7 Responses

  1. Jul 03, 2011
    Judith Gottlieb

    I liked this idea because it gives me a sense of having power and acknowledging my own sadness, anger, sense of inability to create change.
    I like it because it is an action that I can do without creating blame and there is a good chance it will be heard by my family member.
    ( I ran into your Gem of the Week somehow by when surfing the web.... have shared it with my empathy buddy and a good friend who has studied NVC)
    I am grateful for your contribution and although I live in Oakland, CA I find your weekly gem helpful. Sincerely, Judith Gottlieb

  2. Jul 04, 2011

    I have just watched a dearly loved one battle with addiction, severe depression,other mental illness and recovery from several violent relationships.
    I found there was very little I could say, even tiny bsby steps were misunderstood in her illness as threats or some other kind of danger. So all we could do was BE there and offer our love, though we experienced great pain and helplessness. When the opportunity arose we could be gently truthful. Yes, it was neutral,and any requests we made were simple, specific and do-able.....spot-on!
    I took great comfort from the recent research at Otago University which states that those with the best chance of recovery from mental illness are the folk who have solid family support. So those of us who could, just hung in there, and in the last four months we have seen the tide turn and wellness is now slowly coming within her grasp.
    My point is that I had to look elsewhere for ways to deal with my pain, which was very great. Thankfully, so thankfully, I see my loved one now with a chance to rebuild her life.
    Thank you for your clarity and compassion,
    Tessa Whiteman

  3. Jul 05, 2011

    Very glad to hear how this was helpful for you. And glad to have community in Oakland, thanks for taking the time to write.

  4. Jul 05, 2011

    thank you for sharing this with us Tessa. I value hearing the wisdom you gained and the benefits you all experienced, inspiring.

  5. Jul 05, 2011
    JoAnne Guerrero

    Well I think I get a lot out of these Gems I say Hmmmm I wonder who in our family this is based on. I think you are real intelligent and your gems really hit home. thank you

  6. Jul 27, 2011
    Ted Zuschlag

    THANK YOU for spelling it out so lucidly.

    Referring to only ONE event asks significant effort of my mind. But it is worthy effort. (Rather than one event, I imagine writing a long novel. ;-) ) After I used the "simple" structure, Lo!, I got a "simple" answer back ... and felt heard! After that one baby step I smiled inside and out!

  7. Jul 28, 2011

    I would have liked to seen that inside and out smile Ted. Thank you for your practice!

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