What to Do When Someone Won’t Help Themselves

girl sits on bed touching hair warming up with white blanket
by Vance Larson
I have always loved the saying “People don’t drown because they fall in the water. They drown because they stay there.” We all know that one person who always in trouble. They are surrounded by chaos and all they do is complain about how terrible life is. It took me years to get to this point, but I say let them drown.
Many years ago I had a working relationship with a very well know psychologist who had worked with many A level celebrities. She gave me the best piece of advice. She noticed that I was expending a lot of energy on this one particular client. She asked me why I was working so hard? I told her that they needed my help. She said yes, but you cannot work harder than your client. Wow! Simple, but true. I, like so many other people, had the best intentions. However, intentions don’t help people. Actions do.
I now both in my personal and professional life work off the 3 times principle. If you come to me and ask for help, and if I do my very best in terms of creating a safe space, giving advice, or simply listening to you, and you haven’t taken any actions, I’m going to let you drown. And it’s not because I don’t love you and want to help, but you clearly are not ready to put the work in.
We see this in the addictions recovery world all the time. Simply sit in any Al-Anon or other family support group dealing with addictions and see how this principle plays out. Sometimes in order to save or reach someone, you have to let them hurt. And while this is painful to see family, friend or client in pain, we cannot work harder than them.
I don’t think anyone one of us want to turn our backs on someone who is hurting. But, there comes a point when all of your efforts are falling on deaf ears. If someone is sincerely trying, then yes, by all means match their intensity to work this problem out. On the other hand, if they stay in a less than healthy situation, cut the rope and offer up prayers. But move on.
I am not talking about someone who is battling cancer and is not getting better. I am talking about the person who continues to go back to the abusive relationship, after their entire support system has exhausted all of their energy and resources to help them. I’m talking about the friend who is on their 3rd DUI and is calling you to bail them out, despite not having paid you back, let alone go to rehab, for the last one. I’m talking about that friend who is always broke, yet lives way beyond their means, and is asking you for money to keep their utilities on.
It doesn’t make you a bad person to have boundaries. It doesn’t make you a bad person to say no. Think in terms of the principle of 3. Because if they don’t understand the problem, or have tried to fix it, you are an enabler and are not helping them. You know the whole “Give a man a fish and he eats today. Teach him how to fish and he eats a lifetime.”
Helping someone is a sacred act. Enabling someone is not. So the next time that friend who just maybe addicted to drama comes to you for help, and your first thought is not again? Let them drown.
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