Jonathan Decker is a licensed marriage and family therapist and clinical director of Your Family Expert. To ask him a question anonymously click here. For daily Gospel-based relationship tips, join his Ask a Mormon Therapist Facebook group.
Q: Hi, I have a tough question. How can I best support my close family and friends when they become overwhelmed and respond by shutting down and quitting everything? I feel helpless when the go-to of my closest peeps is to withdraw completely. I want to respect boundaries, so how do I help introverts deal with their external stressors?
A: Thank you for asking this. So many family members struggle to connect for this very reason. To be clear, there’s a difference between introversion and avoidance. More on that in a second. That said, it can be tough to nail the balance between respecting a person’s space and giving them the little push that is sometimes necessary to help them act.
Don’t Try to Change Them
You mentioned feeling helpless. It seems like you might be taking responsibility to “help” introverts act more like you, an extrovert. Many people, including me, occasionally fall into the trap of trying to change others to be more like themselves. But all souls are different; what works for one is not necessarily what works for another.
As Elder Jeffrey R. Holland astutely noted “When we disparage our uniqueness … we lose the richness of tone and timbre that God intended when He created a world of diversity” (Songs Sung and Unsung, April 2017 General Conference).
Introverts recharge by having time to themselves to think, ponder, pray, plan, and engage in self-care. As you noted in your question, you need to respect that. They don’t recharge as an extrovert would—through connection and engagement.
That said, there is a difference between recharging and avoidance. That’s where you come in. To be clear, you’re trying to help people stop avoiding, not to stop being an introvert (many of whom do face things head-on).
The Savior’s Example of Inviting
Follow the Lord’s lead: when helping others you cannot force them to do anything. You cannot make an avoider come out of his or her shell. Like Christ, all you can do is invite with love.
It was He who said “I stand at the door and knock. If any man hear my voice and open the door, I will come in unto him” (Revelation 3:20). Alma taught his son Corianton that Jesus always invites, but never compels: “Therefore, O my son, whosoever will come may come… and whosoever will not come, the same is not compelled to come” (Alma 42:27).
In trying to help avoiders to face their challenges head-on, remember those great lyrics about the Lord: “He’ll call, persuade, direct aright, and bless with wisdom, love, and light. In nameless ways be good and kind, but never force the human mind” (Know This, That Every Soul is Free, Hymns p. 240).
So how do you invite and persuade?
Find Out What They Need
When dealing with someone who gets overwhelmed, shuts down, avoids problems, and closes other people out, the most important thing in reaching them is finding out what they need. Oftentimes you can just ask. Say something like “I’m here for you. It seems like life’s hitting you pretty hard right now. What do you need?”
Other times you must discern, either because they won’t open up or because they don’t know what they need. Sometimes that person needs to be heard, to vent. Sometimes they need reassurance. Sometimes they need a plan of action that you can help with. Sometimes they need good old-fashioned advice. Whatever you do, follow Alma’s counsel to “use boldness, but not overbearance” (Alma 38:12).
Prayerfully ask for guidance, studying out in your mind what you know about this person and what they respond well to, and remember the Lord’s promise to Moses: “Now therefore go, and I will be with thy mouth, and teach thee what thou shalt say” (Exodus 4:12).
God will give you the words. Often, it will go very well. Sometimes, you still won’t get the response you’d hoped for. It’s okay, neither did inspired prophets and apostles, nor the Son of God Himself. The other person’s reaction, what they choose to do with your love, counsel, and support, is their responsibility. It is not yours. You need only to extend the invitation and leave the door open for when they are willing to receive you.
Hope this helped. For those reading, what advice would you give? Who do you know that needs this article today? If you’d like to ask me a question, contact me here or join my Facebook group. If you’d like more direct support, schedule a consultation with me or take one of my online courses.