May 2, 2016

How to Support Someone through Tough Emotions (Including Yourself).

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One of the most difficult things I ever did was learn to support myself through my whole range of emotional experiences without running away.

My journey to learning self-support began out of necessity, rather than choice. I had run into the arms of so many vices that I’d destroyed my mind and body. And I had run into the arms of so many other people that I was no longer able to have non-co-dependent relationships.

As I was slowly learning to love myself, I was also learning to support others. I remember one day, I was having trouble listening to my partner when he was angry, and I realized suddenly that the reason I was having so much trouble supporting him was that I had never really supported another person. I had always been the supported one.

I had listened to people complain, but I had never held a safe space for someone when things got really rough. I was always the one in that space, screaming about how it didn’t feel safe enough. I never understood what it was to be on the other side. I had a lot to learn.

With self-forgiveness and patience, I began to learn. I learned to hold myself while I cried, and to resist my compulsions to numb it or beg someone to fix it. I learned to hold space for other people while they cried or raged, and to resist my compulsions to become hysterical or apathetic. These are things I am still learning and will always be learning.

I have found that the most drastic leaps in understanding happen in those moments when things get rough and emotions get high. You may learn from this article, but you won’t truly understand what this is all about until you’re there, face to face with an emotional person or an emotional reflection, and you make the choice to stay, to hold gently.

Learning the art of emotional support is essential to our well-being as well as the well-being of our relationships. When we do not have the space to express our emotions alone or with others, they do not simply disappear. They stew and marinate inside of us, becoming more volatile, more dangerous, and more corrosive to our health and our feeling of connection to the world.

Luckily, it takes the same thing to support yourself as it does to support someone else. The more I learn to hold myself through my own disappointments, the more I can do this for my partner, my family, my clients, and vice versa. Each time that I hold space for a new client, and I practice holding space for that particular emotional alchemy, I learn to support those same emotions even better in myself. Emotional support is a journey and a practice. The more you do this for yourself, the more you’ll be able to do it for others. And the more you do it for others, the more you will learn to do it for yourself and the more you will teach them how to do it for you.

While everyone has their own path, and it is impossible to come up with universal advice that summarizes everyone’s unique journey, I hope that these four guidelines can help you on your way.


1. Give it time and space.

Whether it’s you, your partner, your child, or your parent, take intense emotions seriously. Surrender all hopes that it’ll be over with quickly or that you can fit it in before you do something else. Clear your schedule and your space. Find a comfortable spot. Vow to be there, listening or journaling, as long as it takes.

This also works in the long term. There is no way to know how long it will take to heal from something. There is no way to predict exactly how much time will pass by until you become more proficient at holding yourself gently or at listening non-judgmentally. Release your need to know how long it will take. You are not in charge of, or privy to, that information. It will take as long as it takes. Your work is to take the time and make the space. Everything else is beyond your influence.


2. Believe the emotion, not the words.

If you want to know the complete truth of a situation, don’t listen to a person who is angry or crying tell the tale. Intense emotions have a tendency to sway us into saying that things are “never” or “always” a certain way, which is seldom the case. Emotions make us blind sighted to the big picture. Always give yourself and others the space to speak the thoughts that are triggering the emotion, but don’t make any conclusions or decisions based on what you hear.

Also realize that some people, yourself included, may not have the vocabulary to speak their emotions in words, so they try to “show” you how they feel by making you feel the same way. This kind of behaviour is absolutely corrosive to connection, and the only way to stop is to learn effective emotional communication.

Learn to speak your own feelings and validate those feelings. Learn to identify and validate others people’s feelings. Learn to gently teach communication skills to the people you support by encouraging emotional expression while giving feedback on what that expression looks like. Make it clear that it is always okay to show emotions, but that certain words/actions are not okay, because they hurt you.


3. Practice compassion in conflict, communication in calm.

Conflicts are inevitable, however they do not need to be destructive. In fact, conflicts can be incredible opportunities for growth. That growth, however, rarely happens inside the emotional moment. It happens afterwards, when we come together to discuss what happened.

One reason that calm communication is essential is because, if we only communicate in conflict, we only get one, very biased version of what a person feels. If you only journal when you’re venting your anger, then you may believe that you are a very angry person. If you only hear your partner reflect on your relationship in tears, you may believe that he or she is miserable. By communicating in times of calm, you have the opportunity to get the full story and to truly understand what is happening. That way, you can practice problem-solving (which, as we all know, is near-impossible in times of crisis).

As you learn to communicate after tough times, this will directly affect how you feel during future conflicts. Knowing that, after the rage or the tears calm down, you will have some room to reflect, you can be more patient and compassionate in the moment.


4. Know your triggers.

Being triggered is the most common reason that a supportive person becomes defensive. When we do not know or observe our triggers, we are fooled into thinking that we are being attacked by others or that things are falling apart in our lives, when really we were just set off by some word or event. Become curious about what triggers your emotions. Become curious about what triggers the emotions of others. This way, you can become more compassionate, take others’ reactions less personally, and avoid making bad situations worse.

There is a special kind of blindness that we develop in times of self-judgment where we cannot understand that we are simply thinking a poor quality of thought about ourselves. Writing out your triggers is like putting up post-it notes in your mind with reminders about the kinds of things you will tell yourself to turn a single trigger into a catastrophe. The greatest weapon to endless cycles of self-deprecation is self-awareness.


I hope that these guidelines have been helpful to you. Is there anything else that you’ve found to be especially important when supporting yourself or others? Which of the suggestions above do you feel that you need to work on? Please share below.



Author: Vironika Tugaleva

Image: Bobi Bobi/Flickr

Editor: Emily Bartran

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