When You Push Me to Heal You’re Just Pushing Me Away.
Updated: Apr 1, 2020
As a therapist working primarily with folks who’ve experienced some type of interpersonal violence (assaults of all kinds) I regularly hear from folks that their loved ones are pushing them to heal.
My clients feel misunderstood by their loved ones, even more isolated, and just plain worse.
Pushing is not the same as encouraging.
When we push someone, we’re making the choice for them. We're Denying their Agency*. We’re telling them that we have the answer and they just need to do what we say.
When we encourage someone, we’re letting them know that we believe in their capacity to make their own best choices. We're Affirming their Agency. We’re telling them that we trust them, and that we believe they can trust themselves.
Everyone can think of (and avoid) some examples of overt pushing – but it’s the subtle pushes that disrupt the relationship between supporters and loved ones.
Being pushy often isn’t intentional. In fact, most of the time, supporters are incredibly well-intentioned and only want to help.
The sad truth is though, is that we just don’t always know how to help in an effective way. There’s no shame in that. No reasonable person would expect you to fix a car if you hadn’t studied auto mechanics. And no reasonable person should expect you to know how to be a perfect support person if you’ve never been one before.
We simply don’t have these conversations often enough!
So, cut yourself some slack. And thanks for reading this and putting in the effort to better your skills at being a support person to your loved one.
Take a moment to consider the last time you checked in with your loved one. How did that conversation go? Do you feel like it could have gone better? What do you think went wrong?
Perhaps the answer is that at some point you were pushing. Supporters often find themselves pushing when they mix up their own beliefs and assumptions about what is best with what their loved one actually needs.
Here’s an example…
“Have you started going to therapy yet? Did you get my email with those therapist referrals I sent you?” This pushes the message that they ‘need to be in therapy,’ and that if they aren’t yet, they’re doing something wrong, and is Agency Denying.
While therapy is often supportive, a more encouraging question would be, “Would getting to talk to someone be helpful for you?” If you’re loved one says yes, follow up by asking who they’d like to talk to. Maybe you’re thinking a therapist, but your loved one is thinking a friend, a religious professional, or an old teacher.
What They Need
When and if your loved one has identified what they need, offer options of how you’re able/willing to support them – “If you like I could help you reach out to someone/drive you to your appointment/help you pay/take you out for tea afterwards…”
Let’s look at this another way. When someone experiences interpersonal violence, they had their agency (the ability to effectively and safely make their own choices) taken away. Every time a loved one pushes their agenda the survivor experiences another instance of having their agency disrespected and violated.
One of the greatest keys to overcoming interpersonal violence is for the survivor to restore their sense of empowered agency (a trust in one’s ability to make safe and effective choices).
For a survivor, having their support system push an agenda is like being told over and over again that they can’t or shouldn’t trust their own agency. Healing becomes harder.
The Take Away
Do – Encourage your loved one to identify their own needs and create and pursue their own goals.
Don’t – Identify your loved one’s needs for them and push them in to pursuing the goals you created.
As a support person to a survivor of interpersonal violence it’s incredibly important that you remember that healing is a journey. Sometimes things will move slow, and sometimes things will move fast.
Don’t be afraid to check in with your loved one about what they need, but also don’t expect that they’ll always have an answer for you. Them not having an answer isn’t a signal that it’s time to push.
Affirm their Agency
If they don’t want to talk about it, don’t push them to talk about it. Instead, let them know that you’ll be there when/if they want to.
If they don’t want to read that book on healing from trauma you got them, don’t ask them if they’ve started reading it yet or place it on their nightstand. Instead, let them know that you found the book and that you’re reading it yourself because you want to learn to support them better.
If they don’t want to take time off work, if they don’t want to “get back out there,” if they don’t want to reach out to friends, family, or professionals, don’t tell them that they “have to,” “need to,” “should,” or anything else that implies they’re doing it wrong. Trust in your loved one’s innate capacity to take care of themselves
If you want to be a truly effective support person to your loved one please continue doing the work of practicing to make sure you’re not taking away their agency. Your words and actions hold a great deal of power, so remember to encourage, not push.
Words of love, affirmation, acceptance, and gratitude for your loved one’s efforts to take care of themselves, that they’re safe in this moment, and that you’re there for them no matter what is the right kind of support.
Always remember two things: Healing Is Possible, And It’s When We’re In Connection With Others That We Thrive.
* To have agency is to have access to choices, control over your own actions, and to believe that you can choose to act in ways that are right for you.
Hudson Wilkins, MA, LPCC, EMDR, IFS. Hudson is a nature and mindfulness based trauma therapist inFort Collins, CO. He operates a private practice with a specialty in supporting folks who have experienced sexual violence first hand, and those that love them to heal and rebalance their lives.