How Can I Be There for an Emotionally Unstable Loved One?

Compassionate Love: Displaying compassion for those who struggle with mental illness   (c)2015  Nancy Virden

photo-24800378-frustrated-womanFirst, let’s distinguish between unstable and normal. We all get angry, can lose our tempers, have days we don’t want to get up, other days we don’t wish to go to sleep. We love our jobs and the next day not-so-much. Our family is a treasure and exhausting; sometimes close relationships are very disappointing. We all cry, laugh, sigh, whine, celebrate, and have fun. Our motivation waxes and wanes; motives are fluid. Selfish people can sacrificially give, too. We are all mixed bags.

I suppose professionals may say we are all unstable at times, but I’m just trying to make a distinction. The term unstable has negative connotations like, “Stay away from her, she’s unstable.” Compare that to, “She’s having a bad day.” Clearly, we must know the difference.

When someone we care about is emotionally unstable, we can grow weary. It may feel as if we are drowning in negativity. We struggle with self-doubt – “how much is too much?” and “should I call for help?” Wondering where the line is between encouraging and endorsing causes many of us to withdraw, if we cannot create peace, why try?

Let’s be honest, not all of us are equipped to deal with such situations. The following ideas are good ones- I’ve seen them play out repeatedly in the stories of people I know who struggle with emotional

  • Respect our roles. Professionally trained mental health caretakers are the ones who know what to do; we can ask them, or get our loved ones to them. We offer support, not therapy or diagnoses.
  • Come alongside. Pushing from behind, (“Snap out of it,” “You’re just crazy, grow up already!”) is not helpful. Neither is pulling from the front (“I know how you feel and how you can fix yourself!”). Being a listener without the answers is OK and actually preferable.
  • Take time to be there. Your time is valuable, and you have emotional limits as well. It’s better for all involved if supports draw boundaries and stick by them. However, using the idea of boundaries as an excuse to break promises or run away, is not helpful. If you can only give 1/2 hour every two weeks, say so- and then keep your word.
  • Don’t be in this alone. As humans we are unable to be all things for anyone else. Sharing the emotional and physical burden of walking a loved one through a difficult time is not something we can skip. In taking care of our emotional needs we set a good life example for the one we are trying to support.

Compassionate love is an active love.


NOTE: I am not a doctor or mental health professional. I speak only from personal experiences with and observations of mental illness. In no way is this website intended to substitute for professional mental health care.

If you are struggling emotionally today or feeling suicidal, or concerned about someone who is, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Hope and help is yours.

*pictures from



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