I’d always been the helper, the one everyone flocked to with their deepest emotional cuts.
I cherished my role as a person who created a space where people felt safe enough to share the struggles and weaknesses they’d often kept hidden from others. However, when it came to addressing my own pain, I never wanted to be the one in need of help.
I spent much of my life immersed in other people’s issues, in complete avoidance of my own—decades trying to smother, to drown out the lingering presence of painful past experiences I found too difficult to face. In spite of my efforts, they remained burning within me, a flame that couldn’t be extinguished. I learned the hard way that this kind of damage doesn’t heal, and cannot be laid to rest until it’s unearthed and dealt with. This damage would remain present in all of my relationships, including my relationship with myself.
When my issues finally rose to the surface, I was unprepared for the wave of emotions that washed over me. I lost my footing. I quickly learned that depression was a downward driving force, the weight of which proved immobilizing. It wasn’t until it was taking me hours to talk myself out of bed, that I gathered the courage to ask for support. Upon reaching out, I was often pushed farther away from healing, into an even more damaged and confused state.
Those who cared for me, saddened by my unhappiness, wanted me to “snap out of it.” My need for support and validation was often met with people in my life advising me on what was and wasn’t practical for me to be saddened by. I was told to focus on the positive. While I observed many positive things in my life, and felt immense gratitude for these, their existence didn’t erase what was hurting me. It was my pain that needed tending to.
In addition to being told to ignore my pain, I was also subjected to many clichés. These empty and overused adages were written in a different language than that of the heart’s understanding. I felt they were simply not applicable to the human condition. I kept hearing, “Let it go.” “Move on.” “Get over it.”
How exactly was I to let go of the unseen ache in my chest? How could the concept of moving on apply to me when I felt anchored by a sadness so profound it had stripped the color from my world? How could anyone instruct me to just get over it when “it” was a mountain I knew would take time and great effort to scale? All of the canned replies I’d received overlooked the depth of the damage underneath my visible sadness.
In my search for support and understanding, I was also met with unsolicited advice. I was force fed another’s morals and dogmatic assertions. After struggling for a while, I began applying to myself the methods I’d used over the years to help others. I was also fortunate enough to have a few people in my life whose emotional intelligence nurtured me into and through the healing process.
Through my experience, I gained greater clarity on what eases pain, and what intensifies it.
When my emotional fog began to lift, I emerged from the dark water with treasures in my hands. One of these treasures was a deeper understanding of how to better support and love myself and others through emotional times.
When loved ones are in need of extra support—to steady and prepare them for the inevitable descent from the tightrope of their sanity into the murky water below—we can shine a light, helping them to navigate these dark waters without fear. We can take part in the healing process of ourselves, and those in our lives. The following is an overview of methods that can be used in support of anyone experiencing difficult emotions:
I’m all ears.
In times when we don’t know what to say, perhaps this is our sign to simply listen. Some of the most comforting words I’ve received when feeling sad about something were,”Please go on, I’m here and I’m listening.”
Be the mirror.
Reflection is a way to establish we’re actively listening to the person who is expressing their feelings, and want to move toward understanding them. “What I hear is that (insert situation, person’s actions, etc.) has you feeling (insert emotions here). Have I missed anything?”
Help them help themselves.
Under the weight of heavy emotions feelings of helplessness are often present. Encouraging proactive responses can empower those who are feeling helpless or stuck. “What do you think the best response is?” “Which areas of this situation do you see as fixable, and what can you do to proactively mend things? “Feel free to share you’re ideas and I will offer suggestions if you want or need them.”
Lean on me.
In certain instances a person initially may not have the strength or clarity of mind to be proactive. During these times asking, “What can I do to help you feel better?” can take the weight from their shoulders, and remind them they are loved and supported.
They may desire presence, or even solicit advice. I’ve found it’s most effective to offer advice sparingly if at all, remembering that as individuals we all have variations on how to best handle situations. It’s unfair and often ineffective to paint another’s life with our own brush. Conversely, sharing what’s worked for us can encourage a person who finds themselves feeling helpless, and perhaps inspire them to make their own fitting changes to their situation.
Applying our personal moral positions only adds to the weight and complexity of the load someone may already be bearing. If we find ourselves doing this, we may need to step back asking ourselves, “What is my motivation in berating, judging, or shaming someone who’s already in pain? What’s going on inside of me that’s giving rise to such harsh reactions?”
When friends and loved ones confide in us, they’re often looking for support, validation of their feelings , and encouragement in making changes to better their situation . It’s important for us to allow them space to do so, rather than further cluttering their minds with our own “stuff.”
Even if we are confused by, in disagreement with, or feel our friend may have placed themselves in said predicament by their own actions, employing the methods discussed thus far, and coming from a place of love will prove significantly more effective than striking someone who is already hurt. If you find yourself unable to do this express that because of your own feelings and issues, you’re having difficulty understanding or helping them deal with the situation at hand. Such honesty and respect can be found at the foundation of any good relationship. In other words if helping doesn’t feel like an option, please do no harm.
When another is hurting, rarely do we understand exactly the way they feel. We haven’t lived their life, and aren’t weathering the same storm of emotions, but that shouldn’t discourage us. Understanding others is a journey. On this journey we are enabled to grow, and comprehend on a deeper level not only their emotions and motivations, but our own. This may require patience and time, but it puts us touch with our humanity, makes the world a more inhabitable and loving place, and allows us the honor of helping ourselves and those we care for find the sun when warmth and light feel like distant memories.
Author: Nahtalya Aubreane
Editors: Caitlin Oriel; Katarina Tavčar