Should “bad” still be your default answer to “how are you?” know that you’re not alone in feeling that way. It’s totally normal to have a twitch of exhaustion when someone comes to you with problems and you’re riding the Struggle Bus yourself, especially since the empathy burnout is real right now. And knowing how to support someone when you’re carry your own burdens isn’t easy. Nonetheless, wanting to do so because you want to be good friends and decent humans are admirable qualities too—the urge to show up for other people doesn’t just go away because you’re struggling necessarily. So here’s how you can commiserate with people who are also having a hard time in a way that’s helpful and healthy.
How to support someone when you’re also in need of support (and vice versa)
1. Mind your “I’s” and advice
It’s a human impulse to say you “totally understand” someone and launch into something that’s either different by a small gradient or completely unrelated. In order to not make it all about you, be conscious about not turning the conversation back to, well, yourself. Therapist Gabrielle Morse, LMHC recommends catching how much you’re using “I” when you talk. “Be mindful of whether you’re giving unsolicited advice, this could be interfering and block you from recognizing what your friend needs,” she says. “Instead, show them you are interested by asking follow up questions about what they’re sharing and by checking in about how they are doing with the problem the next day.”
2. Ask how you can best support them
This is an important kindness to keep in mind whenever someone is coming to you with their baggage. Sometimes they’re just trying to vent, sometimes they need words of encouragement, sometimes they want advice, and sometimes they want advice that specifically aligns with how they’re going to handle this anyway. Bottom line: Asking what support they’re looking prevents miscommunication, and it saves you a certain amount of labor.
“Even if you’re feeling exhausted yourself, when you have an answer from someone about what they’re asking of you, you’re better able to understand if, when, and how you can be of best support,” says therapistEliza Davis, LMSW.
3. Validate their feelings
“A great way to identify a friend’s problem is by letting them know that you hear them,” says therapistRachel Holzberg, LMSW. “Joining in their space and validating their feelings and not inserting your own experiences can create an environment that focuses on the other person and not yourself at that given time.”
4. Don’t forget “how are you,” even if it feels trite
“It’s important to ask how the other person is doing or what’s going on for them,” says psychotherapistMichele Burstein, LCSW. “When we’re looking to vent, sometimes we get so caught up in our own problems, we forget to check in with the other person.”
4. Make space for your needs in a friendship
This is a balancing act and it’s never perfect, but allow yourself to be vulnerable and share what’s going on too, especially if you’ve been having a rough time. “It may never feel like therighttime to lean on your friend if they are stressed, but give yourself permission to share what is going on for you too,” says Morse. “Your friend won’t know you need support until you make that known.”
5. Leave the door open for commiseration
If you’re presenting a wall of woes to someone, it doesn’t have to be you talking at them. Talk withthem. “Sharing an experience that you may have had and asking them if they have had a similar experience or how they felt about it is a great way for two people to join into a common space together,” says Holzberg.
6. Don’t negate bite-size support!
There’s a big difference between being someone’s rescuer and amember of someone’s support system. Have reasonable expectations for yourself, and remember that assistance can come in many (manageable) forms. “It can be sending short check in text to your friend often to know you are thinking of her, sending a funny message to lighten the mood. If you don’t feel up to talking when the friend reaches out, offer a time you are free to chat later in the day,” says Morse. “It helps to ask how you can help—sometimes a friend isn’t actually asking for a lot and just wants a soundboard.”
7. Let someone know where you’re at mentally
If you’re truly overwhelmed at the moment and the situation doesn’t seem entirely dire, let someone know when you’re struggling. “It’s important to let your friend know where you are at mentally or emotionally without dismissing what’s going on for them or their emotions,” says Davis. “You can communicate this to your friends by saying ‘I want to be able to support you, and I don’t have the emotional bandwidth to be able to show up for you the way I want to.'”
8. Distinguish between “right now” and “never”
“Not having the emotional bandwidthright now, does not meannever,”says Holzberg.”Letting a person know that you would like to be a source of support when you are ready for yourself is a great way to insert a source of balance.”
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