Excerpt from A Balanced Life: 9 Strategies for Coping with the Mental Health Problems of a Loved One
by Tom Smith (Hazelden, 2008). Reprinted with permission.
For these often frustrated, overwhelmed caregivers, Tom Smith offers practical advice on counseling services, medication management, educational resources, self-esteem, self-care for caregivers, acceptance, and faith.
These brief suggestions are brought home with first-person narratives collected by The Karla Smith Foundation. Named for the author’s bipolar daughter who took her own life, the Foundation believes that caregivers sharing their stories is the best way to pass wisdom while easing the stigma of mental illness.
The excerpt, below, suggests that one way to deal with the unreasonable demands of the severely mentally ill is to love them anyway. More information about the book, A Balanced Life, and author Tom Smith follows the excerpt. Thank you.
“Mental Illness and Unconditional Love”
by Tom Smith
Unconditional love lies at the heart of helping a loved one with mental health issues develop positive self-esteem. But as a society we are geared toward conditional love: in overt and subtle ways, we learn how to love on the condition that someone else’s behavior and attitudes meet our expectations.
But the delicate line between necessary, healthy expectations and conditional love is hard to identify and even more complicated to apply effectively. Parents, for example, generally expect that their children meet certain behavioral, educational, and social standards. At the same time, they strive to love their children unconditionally. It’s common to hear adults recalling their own childhood and testifying to their parents’ failure to separate their expressions of love from their performance or behavior expectations for the child. We don’t always learn unconditional love at home.
Through adolescence and into adulthood, we may not experience unconditional love, either. Competition at school, the workplace, in sports, in social circles, and even in entertainment and arts – all contribute to a society that constantly compares. Someone is “better” (which means someone else is “worse”), someone wins while others lose, some people presumably succeed and others fail. This message is everywhere – in popular media, in advertising, and in our language. We are expected to behave, think, and feel in particular ways, or be shunned, minimized, ignored, or condemned.
The stigma against mental illness thrives in this environment, unfortunately. Nor does this atmosphere promote learning how to love unconditionally. But loving unconditionally is precisely what family and friends of people with mental illness need to do.
How do we do this? Maintain a positive attitude. Compliment your loved one often. Avoid making comparisons. Don’t take the person’s insults, disrespect, anger, and rejection too personally. Make a habit of showing that you genuinely care about their well-being. Wish them well in all their endeavors, help them achieve appropriate goals, listen to them closely and try to understand the world from their perspective.
To love unconditionally means to care for, respect, understand, and forgive another person regardless of their response to your efforts. “Regardless” is the hard part. Loving a person with mental health problems requires a commitment to this kind of love, even as we know that we will sometimes fail.
A healthy self-esteem is essential to a balanced life, and this strategy is worth lots of time, discussion, and effort. Self-esteem is an immeasurable asset to people with mental illness. It can be the emotional anchor that allows them to monitor their medication, use counseling effectively, regulate their schedule, know their strengths and limits, and seek and accept help when needed.
Family and friends are in position to help with this development, since they are in regular contact. They know their loved one’s personality, thought patterns, habits, preferences, and feelings. Practicing unconditional love, they can create a supportive environment where their loved one has the best chance of experiencing the benefits of a healthy self-esteem.
About the Author
Tom Smith is the cofounder of the Karla Smith Foundation, which supports parents and loved ones of mentally ill people. He is author of several articles and books, including God on the Job and Alive in the Spirit.
About the Book
The ultimate goal of those with a mental disorder and the people who love them is balance: emotional, mental, spiritual, and behavioral. Yet, living with and responding to a mentally ill person often leads to the chaos of a relationship where the rules change, the dynamics are volatile, and the expectations are unanchored.
In readable, down-to-earth prose, A Balanced Life teaches family and friends what they can expect from those they love who have mental health problems. It offers nine clear-cut strategies for implementing a plan to support them, including how to assist a loved one in developing healthy self-esteem, accept mental illness as a fact of life, identify early warning signs that precede a more difficult phase of the illness, and create a supportive network of family and friends.
Each strategy is illustrated by inspiring stories of real people who have put the principles into practice, and is followed by key questions that ask readers to ponder their own situations. This is the secret to bringing order to chaos, providing a framework for reactions to the person who has a mental illness. It clarifies expectations and offers advice and encouragement.
Copyright © 2008 by Tom Smith. All Rights Reserved.