There’s something that happens when you become emotionally well. Suddenly, the emotionally unwell become toxic.
As a therapist, when I work with clients who are unwell (in unhealthy relationships, anxious, depressed, at difficult jobs, etc), my first goal is to help them realize that they have the ability to be well, and then to help them draw upon their personal strengths to reinforce healthy living, no matter what is happening around them. Certain things are out of their power and certain things are directly in their power. I help them learn the areas of their life where they are able to take control and impact positive change for themselves.
I often compare emotional health to physical health–when we don’t pay attention to our physical habits, we can slowly and consistently become unhealthy. We put on three pounds, then five, then ten. At some point, we have to make changes, and it is a lot easier to lose five pounds then it is to lose forty, and easier to lose forty than it is to lose one hundred. The greater the weight, the longer and more consistent the change in response must be. Healthy habits must return, through nutrition and exercise, and the health will slowly and consistently return.
First clients have to learn what is in their control and what isn’t. Massive credit card debt can’t immediately be eliminated, but budgeting and earning and planning can easily happen. An unfaithful husband may not stop cheating, but the spouse can choose how to handle the emotions, the relationship, the communication, and the long-term plans of the marriage. Recovery from chemotherapy can’t be rushed or altered, but healthy habits and relationships and mental states can be fostered to help with the healing.
We all know what it feels like to be depressed, to feel like life is out of control, to feel like the world is crashing in. Humans have an amazing capacity to heal and change and survive. But at some point we have to choose what to do with it. We can wallow and give in and give up, or we can rise above and tackle and heal. People who are unwell often make the mistake of thinking they are alone, that their pain is more excessive than the pain of others, and that no one can understand them.
Which brings us to the topic of this blog, the healthy person who has taken time to heal and move forward who then dwells among the unhealthy, or those who decide not to make changes and work on themselves. We all have friends who have financial difficulties or health problems or work problems or relationship problems or faith problems, and they expend a lot of energy complaining about those problems, frustrated that their lives aren’t easy. They want an easy fix, a lottery win or a romantic interest with a lot of money or a weight loss pill, that will suddenly come along and make life simple, yet they refuse consistently to budget or to communicate with their spouse or to reach out for therapy or to exercise and eat right. The idea of getting healthy becomes threatening, and so they keep making unhealthy choices and complaining about their lives.
When describing healthy relationships to clients, I hold up two fingers. “A healthy relationship is when two individuals who are healthy and happy in their own skin decide to be together.” I then point those fingers inward toward each other, demonstrating balance and compromise. “If one of the individuals is happy and healthy and the other is not, there is an imbalance in the relationship, one that becomes unsustainable. It is customary for someone to be stressed or sick or sad or to have family problems, that is different than someone who falls into unhealthy patterns and consistently refuses to work on getting out of them, and then that person begins to blame the stable person for their inability to bear the extra weight of the relationship.” This model can apply to any close relationship, from best friends to spouses to parent/child to boss/coworker.
At the end of the day, the model is pretty simple: every person out there is responsible for their own happiness. And it is easy for the healthy person to want to help the unhealthy person, but only so long as the unhealthy person is also helping themselves; we can never bear the burden of another person long-term.
Another simple recognition: I am a better father, boyfriend, son, friend, worker, therapist, etc when I am happy and comfortable in my own skin. It takes a lot of work, but I’m at the stage in life where it becomes easier to maintain–it’s easier to lose one pound than it is twenty. But I had to do a lot of work to get here.
Sam is never responsible for his boss’s cruelty and harsh expectations; Sam is responsible for staying at the job and being frustrated by it daily.
Alice is never responsible for her husband’s name-calling and violent words; Alice is responsible for choosing to stay with him, for being depressed every day and not speaking up for herself.
Betty is never responsible for the diabetes she was born with; Betty is responsible for her food choices and her refusal to stop eating unhealthy sugary things because she feels she deserves them, even when they constantly make her sick.
Doug is never responsible for his church making policies that state homosexuality is a sin; Doug is responsible for choosing to attend the church each week and feeling broken inside and guilty about who he is.
Jack is never responsible for his wife’s health struggles and her mood swings; Jack is responsible for never talking to her about his feelings, never asking for help from professionals, and just remaining silent and unhappy in the marriage day after day.
A blog like this can be dangerous to write. Depression is real. Trauma is real. Pain is real. And there are many things in life out of our control. But we, each of us, have the ability to become healthy, through hard work and consistent effort. And once we have done it, once we have become healthy, we can certainly understand how it felt to be unhealthy. We can empathize and honor.
But there is nothing quite so exhausting as investing long-term in the person who won’t help themselves.