How Do You Help Someone Struggling With Mindset?

By Colm O’Reilly, The Mental Health Plan

This is an email I received last week:

Something on my mind at the moment is how to help others who are clearly struggling with their own mindset.  I had a personal training client in today. They don’t talk so its hard to communicate with them. They seemed to be struck with anxiety and just couldn’t move. Through some talking and understanding I was able to get them on the rower and try to get them to just focus on breathing and the task at hand rather than letting their thoughts get the better of them for just a moment in time. It’s hard to know what to do in those situations where you feel powerless and you just want to make it better for them. Thanks!!

It sounds like you’re able to recognise emotional states in others and have a strong desire to help. It can feel frustrating or disheartening when we see someone unable to get unstuck, particularly when we understand that health is more than just a few burpees and calculating macros for them.

Your first priority as a coach is to make sure you’re not taking on the burden of your client’s suffering. Like a first aider, you need to protect yourself first. This doesn’t mean you don’t care for them, and you can absolutely feel for them. It’s important to recognise that you alone can’t make the pain go away, or taking on their pain isn’t helping either of you. (You wouldn’t do their back squats for them, as to deny them their struggle also takes away their growth.)

Your clients generally won’t take on advice until they feel “felt”, which means they think that you understand what they’re going through. They’ll have walls up to any advice for any number of reasons – it could seem patronising to them, they don’t feel competent enough to try it, etc. etc. Even if you have the solution and know that it will improve their health, you need to meet them where they are before you dispense any prescription.

This can be as simple as saying “hey, it seems to me that you’re really not in a great place right now. I bet you’re thinking I’m just gonna say ‘cheer up’ (or “I bet you’re thinking it’s all hopeless/no one knows what it’s like.”) I’d like it very much if you could help me understand, but if you don’t want to, that’s okay too, and know that I’m here for you.”

If you’re nervous about stepping over the line, it’s okay to verbalise this. “Hey, this might be stepping over the line and you might just want to workout, I’m just trying to help. Our mental and physical health are interconnected so we can work on some mindset skills too if you’d like?” If your clients shut the door it’s nothing personal. You’ve let them know you’re a safe space and they may open up in time. 

If they do open up to you, ,we need to resist the urge to jump in with actionable advice. Listen to them and repeat back what you heard (either directly parroting their words or paraphrasing). If they interrupt you, brilliant! They’re getting their thoughts and feelings out there!! Validate their feelings: “I can see why thinking X has led you to feeling Y” Again if they correct you you’re getting closer and closer to pure empathy. Keep asking for more until they’ve told you all they can tell you.

Then ask how you can best support them/what do they need? Is it just someone to listen and try to understand, or would they like some advice from your point of view? Most of the time they’ll tell you directly. If not, we can offer suggestions and see which one sparks something in them. Maybe that’s offering solutions, maybe that’s sharing what’s going in you when you witness their distress.

When we do suggest something actionable, the resistance they put up comes from their anxiety, which is rooted in a lack of belief in their ability to make change. Compassionate inquiry (like we discussed above) can help here. “What are you feeling/thinking when I suggest this?” Repeat back, understand, validate.

Then we can suggest a smaller goal. If they can’t exercise, or sleep, or change something in their lives, we’ll look for a more manageable goal for them right now. Reassuring them and celebrating the effort, rather than looking for the result. Yes, they might need to reduce their calorie intake 1000Kcals a day, and we’ve got to scale it back to a small deficit of 100Kcal until they can take on more. Yes, they might need to spend a lot of time sitting quietly until the mind settles, but we can start with short bursts of 60-120 seconds so they can build up their wins. 

Ultimately, as much as we like to help people, we need to let them walk their path. This absolutely does not mean giving up on them. We can signal that we’re the safe space, and act as a non-judgmental example for them, so that when they’re ready, we can guide them along the way. Keep being a good example to them. You don’t need to be perfect. In fact you can share your stories of feeling stressed or anxious and how you took care of yourself. As we’ve shown them how we’ve walked the path to better mental health they’ll trust us to guide them on their journey. 

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