Helping Troubled Minds
By Leigh Ann Powers
I first met Beth* at
church. She was scrunched back in a corner, refusing to make eye contact. Hoping
she’d warm up over time, I continued leading my small group. She slowly uncurled
from her little ball and began to converse.
As I got to know Beth, I
learned she was deeply troubled. An abusive childhood coupled with a personality
disorder had left her with little knowledge of appropriate behavior or social
skills. I wanted to help her, but I was torn. How did I let her into my life
without letting her take over?
What makes people like Beth so hard to
deal with? Art Kirby, a licensed professional counselor and Director of Pastoral
Counseling for Methodist Health Systems in Texas, says that while all of us
“have troubles,” about 15 percent of the population is “troubled.”
people work through their problems, learn from their mistakes and move on.
“Troubled” people do not learn from their mistakes. For whatever reason —
psychiatric disorders, abuse, social clumsiness — these individuals repeat the
same negative patterns. They move from one broken relationship to another —
never understanding what went wrong or how to break the cycle.
Maintaining relationship with these people can take a lot of energy. But
it’s possible to walk alongside them and offer the dignity of relationship.
Kirby offers these suggestions:
It’s OK to be firm. As Kirby points
out, Jesus was loving, firm and truthful. Troubled individuals need to be
lovingly told when their actions are inappropriate so they can learn better
patterns of behavior. I’d say, “Beth, did you realize you just interrupted a
conversation? Next time you want to talk, make eye contact with me, OK?”
- Know what you can and cannot do. Sometimes “troubled” individuals look for a
“perfect” person to rescue them. I had to tell Beth repeatedly, “I am not God. I
cannot fix your problems. I will not be your savior, but I will be your friend.”
- Communicate clearly, directly and precisely. Troubled individuals often take
things literally. If you say “call me anytime,” they may call at 3 a.m.! Be
precise in what you’re offering, such as, “I’m busy with the kids and can’t
always take long calls. If you e-mail me, I’ll get back to you in a day.”
- Set and enforce clear boundaries. It was much harder for me to renegotiate
clear boundaries later with Beth than if I’d established them from the
beginning. I had to spell out some things, such as calling before she came over
and leaving when I told her it was time to go. If she didn’t follow those rules,
I wouldn’t allow her to visit.
I learned a lot from my relationship with Beth. I’m much better at
saying “no.” I’ve also learned how to set and communicate clear boundaries. But
Beth also showed me something of the grace and power of God. If I hadn’t walked
with her for a season, I would have missed out on a glimpse of God’s
Troubled individuals desperately need the hope God’s
power can bring. And we can be bearers of that hope.
Come to the MOMSnext
forum to talk about helping troubled people in your life.
Leigh Ann Powers is a mother of two and ministry wife from Winters,
Texas. She’s a full-time homemaker and part-time freelance writer.
*not her real name