Smiling on the outside, but crying on the inside

I listen with compassion as this individual shares the pain that their loved one is enduring, but after about 30 seconds I stop them and say something to the effect of, “Sorry, but I am not so much concerned about them as I am about you. How are you doing?” And just like that their expression changes, and many break down in tears. It always makes me wonder when the last time was that someone asked them how they were doing.

Companies continue to ask me to enter their workplace and deliver a message directed towards those who are personally being challenged by mental health issues and addictions. And while there is clearly a need for this, I believe that it is time to collectively shift our focus towards individuals who have a loved one who is being challenged by these issues. Hazelden, which operates addiction treatment centres throughout the United States, revealed that one in four families are impacted by substance abuse or addiction. Not surprisingly, 42 per cent of those who fall into this category disclosed that their family issue caused them to feel distracted and less productive in the workplace. How are people supposed to focus on the task at hand when their mind is renting out head space towards their loved one? Perhaps they are thinking about where that person is, asking themselves if they have done enough or wondering if there is more that they can do.

These are the individuals that often mask their emotions in the workplace and typically suffer in silence. A smile can appear on the outside while they are crying on the inside. These are the ones who carry the load; the ones who believe that they must be strong for their loved ones.

However, one can only shoulder this load for so long. Eventually their own stress becomes too much and it seeps out into the workplace. Interestingly enough, these individuals actually exhibit similar signs as those who are personally being challenged by addiction or mental health issues. This can include absenteeism, isolation, mood swings and making careless mistakes.

This stress can be detrimental to a workplace environment. The individual’s mood, motivation and work attendance affects the workplace as a whole and can create tension between co-workers. Meanwhile, there is a decrease in team morale, lower productivity and increased company costs.

The only way to understand what is driving an individual’s behaviour is through direct communication. A co-worker or supervisor can simply approach the person and say something such as, “I don’t mean to pry, but I just wanted to let you know that I am concerned. I would be happy to listen if you ever need to talk.” Just like that, a door has been opened, and the individual has now been seen and knows that there is a place where he can be heard. Most importantly, if he does take the courageous step to talk, it is essential that the other person drops what she is doing and listens.

If you find that you are constantly feeling worried, angry or resentful towards someone in your life, then it is time to take action. It is time to sever the cord, regain control of self and return to a life of freedom. It is time to get back to the journey you were meant to lead in the first place.

Al-Anon refers to 3 C’s which allow one to regain control over their life. Although these were initially directed for people who have a loved one going through addiction, they are relevant in several situations.

1. You can’t control an addict
2. You cannot cure an addict
3. You didn’t cause the addiction

The fact remains that nobody can control anyone but self. Similar to the expression you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink, there is only so much that we can do when a loved one is hurting. We can drag them to the hospital but we cannot make them stay. We can take them to a counsellor but we cannot force them to speak. They key is to do and say everything in that moment so that you don’t look back thinking, “I should have done more.”

Perhaps it is time to turn away from the chaos and take back control. Think about your own needs and then establish appropriate boundaries around those particular needs. Sometimes the act of creating space can feel like abandonment. However, love and hope are constants and will always remain. Remember that without change, neither you nor the other person will benefit. Like a three-legged race, if they fall, you too will be brought down.

The workplace can be transformed into a safe and supportive environment, conducive to helping each individual remove their masks. Nobody needs to be fixed, but the value of being seen and heard is immeasurable, and the positive ripple effect can be seen in the workplace as a whole.