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Therapist Shares The 3 Things To Say To Someone Who's So Overwhelmed They Don't Know What They Need

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woman comforting friend

We're living in fraught times, which make our individual lives all the harder to navigate. The vast majority of us are spread too thin in the first place, so it can all add up really, really quickly.

Mental health professionals say that being able to lean on your support system is one of the most important ways to get through these difficult times. And when someone does lean on us, it's often our first instinct to say, "What do you need?" or "How can I help?" 

But we've all been there — you're struggling so much that when someone asks how they can help all you can think to say is, "I don't know!" A therapist known as Steph the Attachment Therapist on TikTok shared the perfect advice for these situations.

   

   

She explained that when someone is truly overwhelmed by their struggles, they often can't answer those questions. Worse still, being asked often just makes them feel even more overwhelmed.

Well-intended as they are, Steph said that asking these kinds of open-ended questions tends to shut people down when they're really struggling

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They're spread so thin that "it's simpler and easier to say no, even though they have an unmet need." Their brain is so overloaded that they can't articulate that need, even if they want to.

"[This] means you need to now really narrow their field of vision and make it simple." She suggested making the conversation as simple as possible by giving "binary choices" — replacing "Do you need help?" with "Do you need this, or that?"

Here are 3 things to say to someone who's so overwhelmed they don't know what they need, according to a therapist

1. Do you want validation or problem-solving?

How many times have you been pouring out your heart to someone and they give you the exact opposite of what you need? You just want a listening ear and they start peppering you with proposed solutions. Or, the opposite — you desperately need advice and all you get is sympathy.

These situations can be very difficult for our support systems to read, especially because we all tend to gravitate towards one desire or the other based on our history and personality profile.

   

   

I, for example, was raised by people who never validated my feelings, so when I'm upset I don't want solutions. I just want you to shut up and listen to me kvetch! Solutions can come later. Others, though, are more proactively oriented and might value your perspective. 

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2. Do you want me to stay here with you or do you want to be alone? 

This is often one of the most ambiguous decisions to be made when someone is in crisis. We often feel like we should get in the car and race to our person's side, but for many people that is the exact last thing they want and only makes the overwhelm worse

For others, togetherness is just what the doctor ordered. And for still others, it might be totally dependent on the situation. 

3 Things To Say To Someone Who's So Overwhelmed They Don't Know What They Need, According To A TherapistPhoto: Prostock-studio / Shutterstock

Using myself as an example again, sometimes my crises are "come quick, and bring a pizza!" affairs while others are "if you come over here I swear to God I will burn this house down with me in it" sort of incidents. It just depends!

Asking narrows the focus to make sure your loved one gets the companionship or solitude they need at the moment.

3. Do you want to talk about it or do you need a distraction? 

Again, everyone is different. Recently, a friend of mine suffered the tragic death of a close friend of hers, and purely out of my own awkwardness, I asked her this very question. 

Given that she's a fairly verbose, touchy-feely type, I expected she'd want to pour her heart out. Imagine my surprise when she said, "No, I want to eat an entire bag of Doritos and watch the stupidest thing you can find on TV." Copy that, friend!

   

   

According to Steph, ultimately, it's all about two things: "You keep it simple, and you don't make the choice." This way, we can truly show up for each other in ways that actually give us what we need to move out of overwhelm.

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John Sundholm is a news and entertainment writer who covers pop culture, social justice and human interest topics.