Don’t Make Promises That You Can’t Deliver
By: Beth McHugh 2006
When a person is mentally ill, they are very vulnerable. They are particularly vulnerable to offers of help or other favors which naturally give them hope that things will get better. But have you ever offered support to an emotionally ill person and failed to come through with the goods?
Suffering from an emotional disorder is a rough sentence as far as life illnesses go. Whether that illness is depression, chronic anxiety, schizophrenia, schizo-affective disorder, bipolar disorder, or any of the vast range of psychological conditions that beset humans, the sufferer needs to remain as positive as possible about their condition in order to maximize recovery and/or stability.
Unfortunately, there exists a group of people who will literally vanish at the first sign of any serious illness, whether physical or mental. This behavior can be distressing to the sick person when they realize that their friends were not really friends at all.
However, there is also no shortage of people who will verbally offer all means of support to a desperate person: support which never materializes. It is surprising just how often this phenomenon occurs and why, as a therapist, I encourage people not to do this.
Let’s look at the case of Sallie, who came to me overcome by life problems and was suffering from reactive depression, that is, depression related to the overwhelming array of events that she was forced to deal with.
Many people had come to see her, some offering prayer, some offering to pick up any little bits and pieces she needed at the shop. The offers of help were certainly not short on the ground, but when it came to actually carrying them out, most of these people were sadly remiss in delivering what they promised.
Sallie had asked one of her women acquaintances to buy her a loaf of bread when she was next shopping. The friend said she would. The day passed into night and Sallie rang her friend thinking that perhaps her friend was sick. The friend had forgotten to buy the bread. This was no problem for Sallie, but what happened next was. Sallie asked if her friend would buy her a loaf the following day. The friend replied that she was going to the neighboring suburb the next day, and no offer to buy the bread was extended. Sallie couldn’t understand why her friend was so thoughtless, given that she new Sallie was unable to shop herself.
Yet more was to come. Sallie was put in touch with a nun who acted as an advocate to the poor. Catholic-born, Sallie had turned to this woman in her hour of need and this nun had initially responded in a positive way, bringing her flowers and much-needed hope. But this nun was not a woman of her word. She promised to ring Sallie whenever she came back from out of town. She never did. She promised to bring her an expensive body cream to lift her spirits. She never did. She promised to give her money for medication that she could not afford. She never did. She promised to bring Sallie, an artist, two pictures for her to draw to cheer her up. She never did. She asked Sallie to take cuttings of basil and grow them for the nun’s garden. She never picked them up.
When Sallie came to see me she was ill from her initial illness, but she had been made even more despondent and depressed by the thoughtless actions of this woman.
Why do people do this? Perhaps it makes them feel good when they announce that they will help people, but the promise quickly disappears from their radar once they are away from the sufferer. Out of sight, out of mind. Some people will say anything to get out of a difficult situation, and literally promise the world in order to make themselves feel less uncomfortable with their friend’s plight. But both Sallie and I felt that this nun had acted in a particularly irresponsible and hurtful way, given the nature of her job.
The bottom line is not to promise anything to a sick person, particularly a depressed or anxious person. They are feeling so down that they then look to you, the bearer of the promise, as a ray of hope in their lives. If you fail to deliver, they are crushed because they have already been crushed by the burden of their illness.
It’s always lovely to do things to help others. Help them by
all means, but surprise them with your helpfulness. Do not disappoint
them with your negligence.