Ask questions, listen and be present—but don’t try to take on their pain.
You probably know someone who is unhappy or struggles with anxiety or depression. When someone close to you—a spouse, a family member or best friend—is suffering, it can be painful. You want to help, but you may not know how. Maintaining your own happiness can become a challenge, as well. We turned to the experts for advice on how to navigate this difficult emotional terrain.
First, identify if the problem is clinical and requires professional treatment, or situational (job loss, divorce, loss of a parent), and if it is short- or long-term. In all circumstances, experts advise not to take ownership of the problem by saying, “I know how you feel.” Instead, you might say that you cannot fully understand their pain because they are the ones experiencing it. Let a loved one know you are there for them, that you care, and that he or she is important to you. Offer empathetic words such as, “I am sorry you are suffering.”
If you think your loved one needs professional help:
- Recognize that you can only offer the support of your presence and assure them repeatedly that you are there for them.
- Suggest that the person talk to a professional.
- Although the situation is painful for you, sometimes people don’t want to get better or cannot be helped. Acceptance may be your only choice.
If the unhappiness is situational and short-term, you can:
- Be there for them and reassure them, and this may be enough. Most people do not want to be unhappy and will mourn and move on. They will actively seek to help themselves by talking, exercising and finding other things to focus on.
- Make suggestions you think might help or just offer support to ride out the pain with them.
1. Be present.
If you determine the cause is short-term or your loved one can be helped, give the gift of your time and presence, listening, supporting and being there. “If it’s a spouse, gently probe,” advises Pat Pearson, M.S.S.W., and clinical psychotherapist and author of Stop Self-Sabotage. “I notice you don’t quite seem yourself lately…has anything happened to upset you?” And then offer supportive words: “I love you. I’m here, and I care. Please tell me.”
Men tend to go inward to protect their spouse from pain in their life, and shut down rather than say, “I hurt or my friend died…or I’m upset with myself about my finances,” Pat explains. She recommends a “help first” approach. “Let go only after repeated attempts at listening, and then announce that you are letting go so they don’t feel abandoned. Tell your spouse you will reengage when they open up,” she says.
If you can facilitate a conversation, let the other person have the floor. “Many times depression is anger turned inward. Let your loved one get those feelings out, help them get the feelings out and that will help tremendously,” Pat says.
3. Realize unhappiness can lead to positive change.
Suffering, as hard as it is to witness, can lead to growth. Sometimes people have to hit bottom to begin to rise.
4. Vent to friends.
It’s difficult to feel powerless in the face of a loved one’s unhappiness. “Go about your life and reach out to other friends,” Pat recommends. “Don’t be a martyr. Express your frustration, anger and concern. That expression keeps your feelings flowing.”
5. Set boundaries.
Although your intentions may be noble, emotional enmeshment isn’t healthy. “You have to claim responsibility for the happiness you can create,” says Pat. “That happiness is inside you. You can invite others to be happy but it’s up to them if they accept. That’s the boundary between personal responsibility and over-giving.”
6. Protect yourself.
Realize that everyone is ultimately responsible for their own happiness and no matter how much you love someone, you are never responsible for someone else’s emotions. If you determine someone you love is not willing or able to move on, realize the situation can be damaging to you and take steps to protect yourself. You don’t have to take a loved one’s problems on as your own. Give yourself space to protect your own mental health and don’t become immersed in your loved one’s unhappy feelings.
7. Don’t neglect your own happiness.
Working on your own happiness isn’t selfish—even when someone you love is unhappy. Your happiness shows others what is possible. Expressing your joy can result in emotional contagion—where your happiness begins to rub off on those around you.
No one wants to see someone they love suffer, and we have a natural inclination to want to help. If someone you love doesn’t bounce back after a loss or difficult time, and only seems to get worse, try to keep listening and stay positive while encouraging them to seek professional help.
Give yourself permission to be happy and realize your happiness can encourage others to find their own.
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Sandra Bilbray is a contributing editor for Live Happy, and the CEO and owner of themediaconcierge.net.