How to help someone get motivated

It can be hard to watch someone you care about struggle to get motivated. You want the best for them, and you can see how making a change would help them. It can be painful to see a loved one experience negative consequences from their behaviors. And it can be frustrating when they don’t seem to see how important it is for them to take action.

Recovering from a mental health condition usually requires some kind of action. Your loved one may need to make some tough lifestyle changes. Or they may need to work up the courage to seek professional help. As much as you might like to grab them by the shoulders and make them understand, that’s not the most effective way to help them find the motivation they need to start the recovery process.

Think about your role

You and your loved one will need to work together to figure out what your role will be in their recovery. Are you there just to provide emotional support and encouragement? Or are you there to keep them accountable? Your role depends both on their needs and your abilities.

You don’t have to be everything to this person. In fact, you really can’t be. Maybe they already have someone who keeps them accountable, and they just need you to listen while they talk things out. If there’s something they need that you can’t provide, maybe you can help them find someone else who can step in and help. Sometimes, this might need to be a professional, like a doctor or a therapist.

If the person lives with you and you take care of their physical or financial needs as well, you may need to separate this from your role in their mental health. For example, if they’re able, it might be reasonable to require them to do some chores in exchange for their free rent. When their mental health gets in the way of them doing that, you’ll need to figure out which takes priority.

Using change talk

If someone is having trouble feeling motivated, they usually won’t respond well to being yelled at or pressured into doing things. Change talk is a way of gently guiding a person toward being more motivated. It takes some patience, but this way when they are ready to change, it’s because of motivation that came from within—not because you forced them to act.

The most important part of change talk is active listening. In active listening, you spend more time listening than talking. You make sure you understand what they’re trying to say before you try to give advice. There are basically three steps to active listening:

  1. Ask open-ended questions—instead of “aren’t you going to see a therapist?” you could ask, “what’s holding you back from seeing a therapist?”
  2. Reflect back what you hear in your own words. You can start by saying something like, “What I think I hear you saying is…”
  3. Ask clarifying questions: “Am I understanding you correctly?” “Is there anything else you wanted to say about that?” Give them an opportunity to correct you if they don’t think you’ve understood.

Active listening isn’t just for motivation—it’s useful for all types of communication. Here are some other tips on how to use change talk to help someone get motivated:

  • Ask permission before giving feedback, or when bringing up sensitive topics. Sometimes a person isn’t ready to talk about something. They might be more receptive later. Depending on your role, it may be appropriate to be a bit more firm if they continue to avoid the subject. But even then, it’s important to be sensitive to their discomfort.
  • Ask about their reasons for not changing. You might think that allowing them to talk about why they don’t want to change would just make things worse. But listening to their doubts will let them know that you care and you’re doing your best to be supportive. Their doubts won’t go away if they don’t talk about them. Doubts can also give you clues on how to find helpful solutions.
  • Understand that having mixed feelings is normal. Maybe one day they are excited to make a change, and the next it seems like they’re back where they started. Or part of them wants to change, but part of them is afraid to. Try helping them list the pros and cons of making the change.
  • Give them credit for the positive changes they do make. Remind them of their past accomplishments to help them believe in themselves. If they try something and don’t succeed, give them credit for trying. Sometimes little things like getting out of bed or taking a shower can be a big deal for someone dealing with a mental illness.
  • Remember that things that seem small or silly to you might be a big deal for someone else.

Accepting them as they are

At the end of the day, they need to make their own decisions. Mental health treatment is usually not something you can force upon someone and expect it to have a positive effect. If someone refuses to make a change, at some point you need to be able to let it go. That doesn’t mean you have to enable them by supporting them financially or by doing things for them—it just means that you accept that this is their choice, and that you’ve done all you can.

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