Find a way to support loved ones struggling with life choices without making their burdens your own.
What to do when someone in your life is making “bad” decisions…
I met my friend Skyler when we were both 28 years old. She has long flowing hair, and a tattoo of a nymph on her arm that she designed. She is funny and smart and almost too cool for me.
Guys love her not only because she is beautiful but because she has the perfect balance of feminine energy and adventurousness that makes you feel like something fun is going to happen every time you’re with her.
I met her on a camping weekend with some mutual friends. She was feeling free but also sad from just having broken up with a guy that she had previously thought was going to be the love of her life.
His name was Sam, he was a successful artist like her, had a deep appreciation for music and completely embodied her idea of "hot"! He had played hard to get in the beginning but then completely fell for her and told her she was the one.
The only problem was he sucked at expressing his feelings and often guilted her for wanting to spend time with her friends. This left her feeling more and more isolated and depressed. The kicker was she caught him cheating on her. And not just a one night stand oops I made a mistake one time kind of thing. She discovered a profile he created to court other women. She had to leave.
So she did, but the hard part now was all of her friends and family were mad at her for having disappeared into this relationship that made her sad all the time.
This is the dynamic that I'm going to talk about today... what do you do when your loved one is making “bad” choices?
First let's dissect what emotionally happens when this happens. Skyler's friends felt mad but underneath that anger was actually fear. I'll let you in on a little secret all our anger is actually rooted in fear. When we corner a dog in a corner it will growl not because it is angry at us but because it is afraid and feels helpless in that moment.
So what Skyler's loved ones were feeling was actually fear of 2 main things- 1) that they were going to lose her and not be able to be close to her anymore and 2) that she was going to get hurt and they were not going to be able to protect her.
This is where I came in... so I am on this trip with her meeting her for the first time and I can see what powerful, amazing woman she is. We bond, it's magical like we have known each other for years but it's only been a few hours. We laugh and talk deeply about our lives and by the end of the trip I know we are going to be friends for a long time.
We are now back in the real world and her and I continue to hang out regularly and talk on the phone and about 1 month into our friendship she decides to meet Sam for lunch. Just to see what he has to say, and get some of her stuff back. It's harmless just a quick closer lunch since things ended so abruptly and so bad.
Well you can probably guess what happens. By the next month she is back with him. He promises to be different and communicate more. And really she never felt this way about a guy before so maybe he is the love of her life and just needed a wake up call.
Now it's my move: I have been around the block a few times and so internally my prediction is this is not going to be good, he probably wasn't able to change in those last 2 months and often when people cheat they do it again. But every single person in her life has now voiced this position, “he's an asshole, you deserve better, don’t be naive and go back to him; if you do go back I am not spending any more time listening to you cry about how much pain he is causing you.”
On one level I am with them, I don’t want her to end up with someone who is not going to treat her amazing. I don’t want her to live in pain. But you can see the conundrum I am in: she is back in love with this guy and feeling like none of her friends get it, and even worse she feels like they are angry at her and judging her decisions. If I join that band wagon there is a good chance that she will push me away like she had already done with everyone else and she will feel even more invested in the relationship with her Sam bc she now has no other support system she feels like she can turn to.
So what do I do? Well I am a therapist by trade so luckily I have a few ideas. When we see someone we are close to is in pain and making decisions that we believe will keep them in that pain, our first instinct is to snap them out of it with sheer force. Remember that scene in the movie Airplane where the person is panicking and the other passengers on the plane take turns walking by the person and slapping her across the face.
Just like in the case of Skyler, the more loved ones are making the person in pain feel bad for not being able to get their “problem” in check whether that be a crappy relationship, eating too much, not being successful in school, or overcoming depression, the more alone and hopeless the person ends up feeling.
But I digress, so again, Jesse, come on already what do we do? So the most powerful thing we can do for people when they are in a situation like my friend Skyler is to have hope for them that they are going to find their way through it. I believed that Skyler was going to figure out what was best for her and that all she really needed from me was for me to be there for her and listen to her without judgement.
When Skyler talked to me in the good times and the bad she could feel that I genuinely cared about her, and I didn’t have an agenda. I only offered my observations if she asked. And I was careful even how I phrased my observations because there were moments where she had clarity that Sam was being a real jerk but I knew I shouldn’t jump on that because when she flipped to being in love with him again she could feel like she couldn’t talk to me about it if she thought I thought she was not smart to be with a jerk like him. Instead of attacking Sam I pointed out how I hated that she was in pain and I wished that she didn’t have to be, and she would draw her own conclusions about potentially leaving him.
Skyler and Sam went back and forth with each other for another 2 years. And through that time instead of feeling like Skyler was a senseless person that was messing up her life. I understood where she was coming from. I learned that she had a pretty tough childhood and an absent father, so I guessed that some of the reason she picked a guy who wasn’t great for her was her feeling the feelings she had not resolved from when she was a kid.
Side note: I believe that every human being wants to be happy and successful and good, so if that is not happening it is because they are stuck trying to resolve some pain loop that they do not know how to get out of yet. That thought helps me not be mad at people when they are making decisions that could potentially hurt them.
And even in that crappy relationship Skyler did grow because she got better at taking care of herself, like telling Sam, “I am going out with my friends whether you like it or not because that is important to me”. Eventually, Skyler felt ready and strong enough to leave for good. That was 5 years ago and we are still great friends. Skyler is now traveling the world living the life she always dreamed of living.
Now you might be listening to my speech and thinking that is all well and good Jesse but have you heard of a little thing called enabling?! It sounds to me like you are saying to support bad decisions and not take care of yourself. That is 100% not what I am saying. In no way do I think you should financially support your nephew who is smoking weed every day and living on your sofa trying to find himself. I think you should talk to your nephew in a loving nonjudgmental tone, have empathy for him, while at the same time telling him what you need from him in order for him to be able to crash on your sofa.
And in no way did I drop my life every time Skyler was really upset and felt like the world was caving in on her. I took care of myself first: I ran my business, I got enough sleep, I exercised every day, my point is I did not start drowning with her (when she felt like she was drowning), nor do I with anyone who is in crisis. I give what I am able to give from a place of unconditional love.
If I do not have love to give and I am starting to resent the person who is coming to me for help then I go take care of myself first, and then I reconnect with that person when I am recharged and want to give more.
So to sum it all up, the most transformative thing we can do for the people we love is to accept them completely and understand where they are coming from. If we come from that place it allows them to see the best version of themselves and often gives them the strength to reach for the next level of fulfillment in their lives. I know that’s what unconditional love did for Skyler!