How to Help a Loved One: Limits

How to Help a Loved One: Limits

Letting go helps us to live in a more peaceful state of mind and helps restore our balance. It allows others to be responsible for themselves and for us to take our hands off situations that do not belong to us. This frees us from unnecessary stress.

Melody Beattie

NOTE: This is the final post in our series on How to Help a loved one. (Read Part 1 & Part 2.)

When someone we love is hurting, it can become the center of our world.

Our loved one, their concerns, and their emotional wellness cane quickly eclipse other parts of our lives.

This can cause us to unintentionally assume more responsibility than we should, potentially causing more harm than good.

The good news? By practicing 3 simple principles, we can avoid some common pitfalls and help support the ones we love.

Last week, we focused on the importance of respect

Today, we close with the importance of setting limits.

Limit: the point or level beyond which something does not or may not extend or pass; a restriction on the amount of something permissible or possible.

Continuing our series on How to Help, we highlight the role of limits in helping a loved one who is hurting. Read on for some common impulses you might experience, and practical steps you can take instead.

Determine what is (and what isn’t) “yours” to handle.

Witnessing a loved one’s struggle can be difficult, but for many of us the true challenge is in is acknowledging the limits to how you can help.

You may be your loved one’s partner, relative, or closest friend. No matter how important a role you play in your loved one’s life, the responsibility for their emotional wellness ultimately rests with them.

(If a situation is potentially life-threatening, seek help immediately by calling 911.)

What you can do:

  • Identify which responsibilities are yours. Most of these responsibilities have more to do with you than with your loved one. For example, you can control:
    • when and how you express concern
    • if and to whom you share your concerns
    • the empathy you convey
    • the respect you demonstrate
  • Get clear on which responsibilities are not yours. When we’re worried, it’s common to overstep into roles that aren’t appropriate for us. For example:
    • diagnosing our loved one’s concerns
    • spreading information about our loved one (without their permission)
    • acting as physician or therapist to our loved one
    • attempting to control our loved one’s thoughts, emotions, or choices
  • Adjust and outsource. Once you’ve determined which roles aren’t yours to take on, you can start brainstorming compromises that will still allow you to demonstrate care for your loved one. For instance:
    • instead of accusing, diagnosing, demanding… you can share your concerns with your loved one
    • instead of providing therapy… you can provide emotional support (and offer to help your loved one find a therapist)
    • instead of taking over all responsibilities for your loved one… you can offer 1 or 2 specific forms of help
    • instead of spreading info about your loved one… you can help them decide (and even practice) how and with whom they wish to share what’s going on
    • instead of being your loved one’s sole source of support… you can help them build a social support network of friends and professionals

Rest and recharge.

Once you’ve done what you can, it’s time to turn the focus back to you.

What you can do:

  • Give yourself permission. As simple as this sounds, it can be especially challenging during difficult periods. Remind yourself that taking care of yourself isn’t only unselfish… it’s essential to serving as a support to your loved one in the long run.
  • Get plenty of rest. In the midst of stress, we often stretch ourselves past the point of what’s healthy. Make sure you’re sleeping regularly, and resting more than usual. This may mean you need to set limits in other areas of your life to free up some extra time.
  • Nourish yourself well. Along with sleep, our nutrition and hydration often suffer when we’re concerned about a loved one. Fuel your body well so you can show up as your best self for others.

Seek support of your own.

Maybe you could use a safe place to talk through your concerns, or you’d simply like to gain a professional’s perspective on how best to support your loved one. Seeking your own support can be a crucial step in setting healthy limits when your loved one is struggling.

What you can do:

  • Use your support network. Perhaps you’re the person your friends and family tend to turn to with their difficulties. Now’s the time to let them return the favor. Reach out and ask for help when you need it, even if what will help you most is a quick coffee date or walk around the lake.
  • Talk to a professional. Whether it’s simply a single check-in or weekly therapy, connecting with a therapist is one of the most powerful ways you can gain the support you need to live your best story.
  • Let the rest go. Whatever your loved one may be facing, a sense of isolation and disconnection is common. So, once you’ve done all you can reasonably do, rest in the knowledge that by setting healthy limits during this difficult time, you’ve liberated yourself to share the very gifts your loved one needs most from you: Your care, concern, and friendship.

Enjoy this post? You might also like:

How to Help a Loved One: Empathy
How to Help a Loved One: Respect
Saying No (With Kindness)


Ready to connect with a therapist for support and guidance on how to help?