5 Things to Avoid when Supporting Someone who’s Struggling

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When someone we care about comes to us for help or in distress we naturally want to help them and to take away the pain in whatever way we can. However, its highly unlikely that we can just take away the distress that they are feeling and this can leave us feeling powerless and vulnerable ourselves as a result.

In seeking to fix the problem quickly we often need to rid ourselves of our own difficult feelings in the process rather than validating what they are actually saying. In this position it’s much easier for us to react to our own feelings, whilst losing sight of those we wish to help and potentially being insensitive as a result. We might then wonder why they get frustrated with us or seem offended when we set out to help.

Every one of us is capable of putting our foot in it and being unintentionally insensitive, however, as odd as it may sound, being aware of your own feelings can have a major impact on how supportive you are able to be.

If you are able to recognise your own feelings and not react impulsively, it can help you avoid getting lost in your own difficult stuff or accidentally upsetting someone you wish to help.

Here are just 5 examples of ways in which we can be unintentionally insensitive to someone seeking support :


1. oh you poor thing,  at least …….

The sympathiser – Sympathy is well-intentioned and shows that you understand that they are struggling, but instead of creating a mutual connection between you, where they feel understood, it effectively does the opposite. By being sympathetic we recognise there is distress and we want to help, but instead we create distance from the person by dismissing what they are saying. We are essentially saying ‘I know you feel bad but I can’t carry that feeling with you.’

This is sometimes made worse by our spinning it round and offering up something positive. Unfortunately this doesn’t work, for example if you have ever had a relationship end with someone you still have strong feelings for, and someone tells you that there are plenty more fish in the sea; it can feel as though the strength of your feelings is being dismissed. We can effectively hear ‘ Get over it’ when what we want to hear is recognition of how hard it is, that someone else has experienced this and its alright to feel this bad.


2. What did I say? You can’t say you weren’t warned….

The blame game – Your friend’s been messed around and they’re feeling really upset and low. What might be the natural reaction? Understandably we’re angry about it and we want to vent our feelings.

Anger can be such an uncomfortable feeling that you need to get rid of it as soon as possible. So you might vent at your friend as if you are disappointed in them, especially if they didn’t take advice you’ve pushed upon them and you feel vindicated.  Or you might vent about the person who has wronged them. The problem being that this takes you away from actually acknowledging what they are saying to you, that they are hurting and need to be heard and understood.


3.  But I don’t understand, you always seem so confident to me?

The pedestal fall – Perhaps you have one of those friends that you look up to and admire for their tenacity and enthusiasm; or maybe you know someone who is always there to listen and you’ve learnt to rely on them. The sudden realisation that they are just as vulnerable as the rest of us can shake you up and leave you feeling vulnerable yourself.

You may be left wondering, if they’re struggling, what chance have the rest of us? As a result you may feel let down by their sudden vulnerability and overwhelmed with your own, which can come across as you being disappointed in them rather than supportive.


4.  Oh god, that’s horrible, I don’t know how you can cope with that

The shame role reversal – Similarly if someone you care about has built up the courage to tell you something which they are particularly embarrassed or ashamed of, it can be quite a shock to the system to hear and again leave you feeling vulnerable yourself. You may even experience feelings of shame through your own empathy; imagining what it might be like to be in their shoes, which can lead to an over reaction.

Your own outburst of horror can lead to a role reversal where the person seeking support feels more shame because of your reaction and may now feel the need to make you feel better, effectively reversing the situation.


5.  yeah that’s not good, but wait till you hear what happened to me ……

One-upmanship – There is a subtle but very important difference between connecting with someone and helping to normalise their feelings or dismissing their feelings with some of your own. If you find yourself ‘one-upping’ someone who is telling you they are finding things hard, consider for a moment what’s happening in your conversation.

Your eagerness to share your own experience can over ride your willingness to listen and its likely you are talking about a past experience whereas they are in the midst of theirs.  It would be better to acknowledge that you know how hard it can be rather than to suggest it was harder for you.

Experiencing vulnerability…

It’s easy to think that out of context these responses can seem really harsh. But in reality we have all likely said something unintentionally clumsy with good intent. These responses are more likely than we might like to admit and you may have noticed  they also have something in common; a difficulty with allowing ourselves to experience vulnerability.

It’s not something we are naturally accustomed to, neither should it be as it’s only natural we seek to avoid such feelings. However, it is precisely the capacity to experience feeling vulnerable and not instantly react to it with a knee jerk which enables us to help others feel better about themselves.

Take a moment and think of something which you are embarrassed about and consider the feelings it might invoke in you if you were to risk telling someone. If you were to receive a similar response to one of the above how might it make you feel? This might give you a slight insight into why sometimes those who we are trying to help or support can become frustrated with our well-meaning efforts.

Resist trying to fix the problem…

Often the best we can do when faced with someone in distress is to actively listen to what they are saying, be aware of ourselves and the way in which we respond. Try to resist diving in to fix the problem, listening in itself is an active form of help and support even if it does not feel that way. Sometimes your mere presence can be all that’s required to soothe someone, people often just want to know that someone is there for them without getting freaked out.

If we experience someone being calm, understanding and warm towards us, accepting us regardless of our distress, our painful feelings are lessened and we are slowly able to navigate our way through distress. This is one way in which counselling can be a powerful tool in helping you shift difficult feelings or beliefs that you hold about yourself.

Counsellors are trained and experienced in being able to contain and work with distressing and vulnerable feelings in order that you feel free to express whatever ails you, without feeling dismissed or shamed, or that you have to offer the same support in return.

Most importantly of all be aware we all have limits, if you don’t know what to say then maybe that is what you should actually say? Just telling someone you can’t fix the pain but you can be there alongside them is often enough . You are not expected to solve their feelings or to be a therapist, just to listen, but knowing how not to respond can aid both of you greatly.

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