When my sister was 19, she had a brain aneurysm. Every day since, she has struggled to maintain her independence and financial security. Despite her trauma, Noelle continues to thrive in unexpected and beautiful ways. She never gives up, no matter what comes her way. Over the years, I have discovered the difference it makes when I support Noelle from her perspective, rather than dictating what she needs.
BRIDGE THE GAP
One of the main challenges of having a brain injury is feeling alienated by the people around you, that no one understands what you are going through, that you are being constantly judged for not working, not contributing, not participating in mainstream society.
Walk a mile in their shoes.
Rather than telling someone that you understand what it’s like to live with a brain injury, show them—literally. In doing so, you will discover the daily challenges of rudimentary tasks, limited funds, and social isolation.
IN REAL LIFE
When I spend time with Noelle, I pay attention to every little thing she has difficulty with, and equally what slows her down. Each time I do this, I’m reminded of how much of her mental and physical energy is used up on simple routines such as showering and organizing, leaving little energy for the rest of the day. Another way I bridge the gap between us is to live as she does, on the same budget, riding the same bus, using a similar cane. Though my life will never be exactly the same as hers, this exercise gives me a heightened respect of what she goes through every day.
MAKE THEM THE EXPERT
Don’t assume you know what’s best for someone with a brain injury, even if you have a medical degree or a PhD in psychology. The chances of someone following through on your advice is minimal if you haven’t taken the time to truly listen to their needs.
Listen with curiosity.
Begin conversations by asking your loved one how you can support them, instead of telling them what’s best for them. By listening, you validate the person and their experience, and ultimately strengthen the bond between the two of you.
IN REAL LIFE
Our family is loud and boisterous and as a result, Noelle has difficulty getting a word in during holiday visits. Spending time alone with my sister during family visits gives Noelle time to speak up. Another technique that works is assigning a “talking stick” during group conversations, with each person getting equal time to talk.
LIVE IN THE PRESENT
Too often people reminisce about the “glory days” before the brain injury happened, hoping to raise the spirits of their loved one, when in fact it has the opposite effect. It diminishes their self-esteem, making them feel unworthy.
Now is your power.
Keep conversations in present time. Ask what the highlight of their day was. Notice what lights them up when they talk.
IN REAL LIFE
My sister Noelle loves to cook. So, whenever I find our conversations hitting a low point, I ask her what she has planned for dinner. The benefits are twofold: Noelle perks up completely, and I learn something new.
Individuals with brain injuries have so much to teach us. Lean in and listen, and let them show you the way.
Dr. Andrea Dinardo is a psychology professor, author, and speaker who is passionate about helping people live their best lives. Visit DrAndreaDinardo.com to learn more about her TEDx talk and psychology workshops. Disclaimer. This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment.