3 min

How To Help Someone Who Doesn’t Want Help

My sister Jess was visiting. She’s 34 years old, lives at home with our parents, is single, has mounds of debt, and hates her job. 

She said most of this out loud in one rushed sentence while we were sitting in the living room drinking wine. She sounded resigned. And unhappy. It felt like a cry for help. However, when my husband and I tried to brainstorm and come up with solutions she shut us down. “Can we just talk about something else?” 

I wanted to ask, “How is there something else more important to talk about right now? This is your life.” But I had already been pressing her for 10 minutes and she was no longer looking me in the eye. So after an awkward silence my husband changed the subject.   

Is it possible to help someone who doesn’t want to be helped?

It’s clear Jess doesn’t know what she wants to do with her life and she’s too scared to take action, make changes, or explore curiosities.

Jess went to college and grad school and is insistent she get a job teaching or coaching or working in a school. All that debt shall not have been in vain! But while she loves coaching she’s not even sure if she likes teaching.

So why hasn’t she considered alternatives? Her argument: no money and no time. 

Jess did try waitressing but hated it. She announced it after every shift. Depending on the night she had complaints about her bosses, her customers, the kitchen staff, co-workers, and the way tips were split. 

I get it. I worked in restaurants for 18 years. Most of the time I dreaded it. Waitressing sucked. But I moved out of our parents’ house. I afforded my own studio apartment in California. I made best friends. I met so many people and made so many connections. 

If Jess made a long term plan she could figure out exactly how long she needed to work in a restaurant in order to pay down a big chunk of debt. I tried to make this suggestion in past conversations but got shot down. She argued, “It wouldn’t make a difference.”

This is the belief I can’t seem to shake. I understand not wanting to waitress. I don’t understand seeing only one way out of the situation. There are options she hasn’t explored or considered because they either don’t pay a lot of money (e.g. interning in the film room at a local collegiate basketball program) or require an investment of time and learning up front (e.g. becoming an Orangetheory instructor). But sometimes you have to take five steps backward in order to take one step forward.  

As for time, I’ve seen how my sister wastes it. She watches too much TV. She plays games on her phone. She drinks almost every night. She’s wasting precious time. 

Jess doesn’t want to hear anything I have to say. You know how someone can tell you something and you ignore it or don’t hear it, but another person can tell you essentially the same thing and it’s an impetus for change? There’s three reasons for that:

  1. Relationship to the person: How much respect, trust, and safety is felt.
  2. Delivery: Sometimes it’s the actual verbiage and way the message is said.
  3. Timing: A person is either ready to hear it or not.

There is definitely respect and trust between me and my sister. But my family doesn’t talk much about our feelings and we’re rarely vulnerable with each other so Jess might not feel as much safety with me as she would with a friend.

I mostly worried about my delivery when giving her advice. Maybe I wasn’t being kind enough or supportive enough. Maybe instead of feeling safe she felt judged. For the rest of her visit I considered asking if she wanted to talk more about her current job and options moving forward. But ultimately decided against it. She’d probably just get mad and shut down.

Because regardless of the way I said anything, my sister wasn’t ready to hear it. And you need all three in order to start making changes.

So what can I do moving forward? I want her to be happy. But I don’t even think she’s aware she’s depressed. 

It feels like coaxing a beat up stray dog out of hiding. If I move too fast or talk too loud, the dog will retreat and I’ll have to start over. I need to be patient and make her feel safe. That requires more work on my end. More phone calls. More checking in. More making her feel safe to talk about what’s going on. 

It’s difficult for Jess to face her reality head on. And it’s difficult for me to be supportive without trying to fix things.  

Eventually, hopefully, Jess will be ready to make changes. And only then can I help. 

So no, you can’t help someone who doesn’t want to be helped. But you can make them feel safe to ask for it.


Much thanks to the Compound Writing crew: Adam Tank, Stew Fortier, Joel Christiansen, Lyle McKeany, Ryan Williams, Steven Ovadia, and Drew Stegmaier for feedback on this essay.