Caregiver Skills - Silence/Shut Down (6 of 6)

By Elizabeth Easton
This video highlights best practices for supporting a loved one when they are not using words to communicate with you.

Dr. Easton’s six-part presentation is designed for families to learn about their role in recovery and the skills to become recovery coaches. If you have every wondered “what can I do to help my loved one recover?” this is the video training series for you. The skills taught here apply to “caregivers” meaning anyone who is providing care to a patient in treatment, no matter the age of the patient or the age of the caregiver. Learn how to harness your caregiver power.


Elizabeth Easton:
Hi, everyone. Welcome to Emotion-Focused Family Therapy: Emotion Coaching, Silence, or the Shutdown. I'm Elizabeth Easton, the director of psychotherapy. I'm here today to give you a skill of working with one of the most challenging situations that we come across in supporting our loved ones, particularly our loved ones with mental illness. And that is the shutdown when you can't get much from them. In order to fully understand this skill, I would encourage you, if you haven't already, to watch a Emotion Coaching Step 1 and Emotion Coaching Step 2. These two videos will give you the foundation you need to then deepen your work with that skill in order to approach this really challenging situation. What do we know about the silence or the shutdown that we sometimes can get from the people that we love? We know that it's incredibly painful for all involved, that when you're trying to support someone you love through something difficult, and they don't give you anything to work with, you have no idea what they're experiencing, what they're feeling, what they're thinking, or how to help, it is excruciating.

And I know many of you watching this video right now may be in that situation right now, but remember being in that situation along this journey. Although they may come across as wanting space, rest assure that your loved one has incredibly strong and often vulnerable emotions underneath that need attention, that in those moments of shutdown, space is often the last thing that you should give them. So here's what we're going to do instead. We're going to go towards them, connect with the goal of helping them to open up to connect, and to seek support. I know that sounds like a tall task when you think of some of the situations you've been in when your loved one has been shut down or shut you out, but we're still going to come towards them with that goal, and that belief that it's possible to help them through it.

So let's now walk through the steps of Emotion Coaching Silence. It's the same as the steps you learned before. Step one validation and step two, support: emotional support and practical support. All we're going to do, in this instance, is lengthen out our validation of what they're going through. So, first, the validation of silence, and then the validation of the emotions underneath. So your goal in this first piece is to connect to why they may be silent, why they're closed to your attempts for connection. And you're going to do that from three perspectives. The first, from their perspective, the you. I can imagine why you wouldn't want to speak to me because you may feel really uncomfortable in talking to others about these vulnerable feelings.

The next one is validating from the perspective of your relationship or the we. I can understand why it would be hard for you to talk to me about your feelings, because we haven't always been in the habit of talking about the tough stuff. And the last one is to validate from your perspective, the I. I can imagine why you would be silent, because I haven't always been understanding or accepting of your feelings in the past. The you, we, I micro skill that is used in Emotion Coaching Silence really helps to connect and deepen the connection and also brings in the element of it's okay. If part of the reason they're silent is because something in your relationship or the way that you've approached their emotions before, to really sit with that, to allow that to be discussed, and brought in because what's the goal? To get them to open up.

And if opening up starts with them saying, "Yes, you haven't always made this easy for me," well, that's the start. They're no longer silent. They're no longer shut down. And now you can start moving forward to unpacking what's really going on for them. So the next piece to this, after Emotion Coaching The Silence or the shutdown is to start targeting the emotions that might be underneath that state, so emotion coaching anger or sadness or loneliness or even hopelessness, whatever you believe might be underlying the resistance to open up. Remember, making guesses is often better than asking questions. If you can imagine that in that state, they are so overwhelmed, they don't know what they're feeling. If you just start to work through what they may be feeling, you can help them start to move through the emotion and be less locked into that process.

So make some guesses. These are not just darts at a dart board. They're precision darts. Assume that there's anger and anxiety and hopelessness underneath. You've known them. You've known what they've been through. This is that moment to bring in that knowledge. I can imagine that underneath the silence, you might be feeling angry because, because, because. And then move on to maybe sadness. I can imagine that underneath your resistance, to connect with me, you might be feeling sad because, because, because. Again, noting that for each emotion, you're going to bring forward at least two, ideally three becauses to really sit and help them process and move through the emotion. And then you could repeat that with fear and loneliness and hopelessness, so really helping to connect deeply to what they're afraid to express, to feel, and to bring into your relationship.

Your last step, step three, is to come forward with problem solving, but it's a little different with silence. In this step, you may want to communicate to your loved one that there's space for them to build trust with you, that they may not feel comfortable doing this yet, and they don't have to do it right now, that they could take the time they need to be more comfortable and more willing to open up in these ways, and that there's no pressure for them to engage with you in that moment, that you will be there whenever they're ready, and that your loved one has you no matter what. So these are really four components that can be very helpful to follow up to that validation step. This is really your support step.

Meeting silence in this way conveys an understanding and respect for your loved one, and it goes a long way towards maintaining connection and even encouraging your loved one to eventually open up. In fact, we've found that it's difficult for many to remain in that silent, disconnected, or shut down state when met with this kind of unconditional support that you bring forward in validating the silence. I hope that this is helpful. I know this is incredibly painful, but this will give you some tools to be able to rely on that can help start to build that bridge to your loved one and to their vulnerability. Thank you.

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