How to relate to a person in one’s life who is in crisis as a consequence of self-destructive decisions

Most of us have known someone – a child, a relative, or a friend – who continually makes decisions and takes actions that disrupt their own success and the lives of those who love them. Our natural desire is to guide people we love toward recovery and self-control. Sometimes our efforts work, but often it is for a limited time. It is rare that we can make a person change through our own reason or control. How do we accept a beloved friend or relative for who they are and still acknowledge their self-destructive behavior for what it is? How can we stay in relationship while drawing firm boundaries to protect ourselves and others? How can we live into another person’s suffering without being consumed by it? How do we walk that delicate balance of compassion and love against the need to draw lines to protect ourselves and others?

It is helpful to cultivate practices that set our hearts and minds into a posture of readiness for whatever happens and let us be mindful in our response to the person’s actions. The following thoughts and guidelines may be helpful.

  1. Patience and support: Since the crisis for this person you care about has no doubt developed over a long time, a reversal of the situation will almost certainly spread out over an extended period of time. It may be helpful to consult with a wise, trusted friend or counselor for guidance and support along the way.
  2. Meditation and prayer: It can be fruitful to feel the situation deep within yourself, and hold this person you care about at the center of your being, entering a period of deep centered silence as you await the possibility of a picture welling up from within. If an image does emerge, explore possibilities of what God may be saying to you through it. Carry the image with you over time and eventually details may develop or the picture may evolve, bringing additional insight.
  3. Take regular quiet time to see into your own heart and to recognize your own pain and suffering  caused by your desire for things to be different, for the person to be different. Acknowledge within yourself the many realities of the situation. Try to put aside the desire to do something. Rather sit with your emotions and wait until some clarity comes and you can feel or visualize a useful response.
  4. You may not be able to “fix” the person or a particular event, but you can cultivate a practice of love, forgiveness, and prayerful presence to the person, the situation, and your own emotions and responses. Try to hold the person in your heart on a continual basis, at the same time opening yourself to God’s compassion, truth, and wisdom.
  5. Mindfulness and presence: To the extent possible, be a prayerful, non-anxious presence. Try to maintain open communication, listening with all of your senses, being honest in a way that is gentle and measured, never pushy. Help out in any way you can, taking care not to do anything that will perpetuate self-destructive behavior. If you help, do so without expectation of a return, but rather as an unobligated act of love. Do not act as an enabler, taking on responsibilities or attempting to save the person from the consequences of the self-destructive behavior.
  6. Ideally, we want to keep the channels of communication open with the goal of moving the person toward healing and wholeness. It may be possible, with adequate prayer and consideration, to come up with constructive suggestions along with a diplomatic approach to planting your ideas, and a sense of timing as to when to offer your thoughts. Yet, unsolicited advice can create a barrier. If you make a point of listening carefully on a continuing basis to what the person says, in the course of time you may be able to find openings to pose thoughtful questions that could draw the person out so that they begin to acknowledge the realities of their situation and, in time, start to see for themselves some positive steps they could take.
  7. In this type of a difficulty, three signs of the Spirit are most likely to emerge that would point to progress: energy, joy, and peace. Indications of these signs affirm forward movement. Their opposites are negative signs that suggest that something is stuck. Energy can be seen when the person is motivated to follow through with positive steps to address the matter or when you grasp and forgive your own suffering. The longer this energy persists, the stronger the sign. Joy is not likely to be euphoric in the early stages, so even a receding gloom can be reason for encouragement. Peace will not quickly appear as total serenity, but more likely as a slow increase in inner confidence. And bear in mind that negative signs alert caution.

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform:
He plants His footsteps in the sea,
and rides upon the storm.

– William Cowper, 1774

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