Tag Archives: support

Asking for more

Everyone I know is up against it, one way or another. I don’t know anyone who isn’t hurting, anxious, exhausted, ill, overwhelmed or terrible combinations of those things. Faced with that, how can anyone ask for help, or for more than is already being given to them?

I’ve been doing a lot of rethinking around all of this in recent weeks. I have a long history of not being very good at asking for emotional support. However, I note that I get a great deal out of feeling useful and like I can make a difference. I also note that this is true for a lot of other people as well.

Small things can make a great deal of difference and most large things depend on a lot of small things underpinning them anyway. So, getting the small things right gets a lot done. When life seems overwhelming, those smaller actions can seem far too small as responses, but they aren’t. A genuine smile full of warmth and friendship can change everything. Small acts of care and kindness, of attention and listening aren’t hard to give, even for a person who feels sorely depleted. Exchanging small gestures of care and support we can keep each other going.

I’m finding that being really specific about what I’m asking for helps. Most often what I need is reassurance that the other person is ok with me. Sometimes what I need is a hug, or some feedback. I can be very wobbly, and very much helped by small interventions. I’m very much in the habit of toughing things out, but that doesn’t help me much and I’m not sure how much it helps anyone else.

Some people are of course needfully possessive of their time and resources. Asking for more when a person has already made some firm decisions about where their boundaries are and what they can give, doesn’t go well. But not everyone is holding tight boundaries. For some people, the opportunity to help can be a good thing. Some of us need to feel needed – this is definitely a thing for me and I tend to respond well to opportunities to be helpful. Some people need to feel wanted – in fact the majority of us need social affirmation and things that help us feel we are part of something bigger. Asking for help can be a way of meeting another person’s social needs.

I’m more likely to pull away and disappear if I need something different from someone I am not close to, than to ask for help. I have tended to assume that’s the better choice, and I have come to no conclusions about whether to rethink that or not.

Asking for help creates the opportunity for developing community bonds. What can look like taking from one perspective can seem vulnerable and generous from another. If we are able to collectively soften our edges and move towards each other what happens is not an increasing of each person’s exhaustion. Instead we can have mutual support that makes everyone who leans in feel that bit stronger and more supported.

Willing to be uncomfortable

One of the most powerful things we can do to support each other, is be willing to be uncomfortable. It is key to listening with an open heart so as to fully take on whatever the other person is experiencing. If there are actions we can take that would genuinely help someone else, being willing to be uncomfortable with them will help us find those actions.

It is all too easy to act in a way that seems soothing, but has the effect of shutting people down. ‘There, there, don’t cry’ is not an act of giving comfort to a person in distress, it is about reducing discomfort for the person witnessing the crying. It’s a simple and common illustration. The person doing it probably does mean to be comforting, but doesn’t think through the implications.

Another common form – again probably well meant – is to reassure the person in distress. You’re ok, you’re doing well, it’s not that bad… Such statements are a real barrier to asking for help or even getting into the details of the problem.

In its worst forms, the shut down is deliberate. I’ve had people be really explicit about what they want me to do to make them feel more comfortable because they don’t want to deal with my distress. I’ve come to draw a line between well meant things that don’t work, and this kind of reaction. I can only have fairly limited and distant relationships with people who would prefer I shut up if I’m in distress. These are not people I continue to invest in.

It is a different situation if you are also in crisis and don’t have the means to support someone. However, my experience of people in crisis is that they are often the first people to move towards me when I’m struggling. It is my ill, wounded and struggling friends who are most likely to be willing to be uncomfortable with me when I need that. It has been my more well and comfortable former friends who were quickest to shut me down and tell me off.

It isn’t easy being open to someone else’s pain, but it is a powerful choice. It does get things done. It does far more good than vague reassurances or soothing noises. Being willing to hear, to try and understand, and to affirm the person in what they’re going through is a starting point from which better things are a lot more possible.

Soothing the troubled mind

Person A: I feel terrible about myself.

Person B: I think you are an excellent person.

Person A: Thank you. I still feel terrible about myself.

Person B: Why do I even bother?

The thing to remember about hurt and wounded people, is that it was seldom one event. People who are depressed, anxious, who have no self esteem and who feel grim about life tend to have gone through a process. However much we want to fix and heal each other, saying one nice thing once won’t restore the brain of someone who has spent years under attack.

Helping someone rebuild themselves means being in it for the long haul. One complement isn’t going to change everything. Over-complimenting can feel weird and uncomfortable. 

The best thing you can do for a person is be affirming. That includes affirming that their responses to their own historical issues are valid and reasonable. Affirm that it’s ok if things are difficult now because of what happened before and be patient while they work on things. Affirm that their choices and decisions are good, whenever you can. Give positive feedback whenever the opportunity presents itself.

Saying things like ‘I understand why it might seem that way to you’ or ‘your response makes sense to me’ can be a good opener if you need to explain that they’re wrong. People can get trapped in perceptions of the world that really harm them and need help getting out of that.

“I can see why this is making you feel bad about yourself, but it was an honest mistake and we all do that.”

“I can see why this makes you uneasy, but this isn’t going to play out the way that other thing did.”

Affirming the other person’s validity as a person, affirming their feelings and reactions can go alongside gently challenging all of that baggage. When we feel valid and safe it’s a lot easier to do the work of healing and moving on from past woundings.

Supporting Victims

If someone you know is a victim of bullying or abuse, there are things you can say and do that will really help, and well meaning things that can make the situation worse.  

Being ‘neutral’ can feel like a moral choice. It isn’t. Doing nothing always supports bullies and abusers and enables them to continue. It always undermines the victim. If both people tell you they are the victim and you don’t know what to do, look at the power balance. If all else fails, support the person who is asking for comfort and safety not the person who is asking to punish someone. Abusers will gather support to pile further abuse on victims, and you can avoid becoming part of this.

Listen. Really listen. Don’t bring assumptions with you or ideas about what you would have done differently. Don’t assume that because the bully is nice to you that they wouldn’t do this. Bullies and abusers cultivate supporters – how else could they operate successfully? They are in control of what they do, and will deliberately isolate their victims.

Micro-aggressions are a real thing. If the individual events described to you seem trivial, remember to look at the bigger picture. If someone is facing a constant drip of poison, put downs, humiliations, criticism, being overloaded, being blamed and the like than the damage done will be greater than the sum of its parts. Don’t dismiss bullying on the basis that it just looked like one small thing. Also remember that experiences that aren’t a big deal for you might feel very different to someone else.

Don’t try to explain, justify or minimise the abuse. There may be a time in the future where understanding why would be helpful, but right now the most important thing is that the victim feels safe and supported. Don’t make the bully and their issues the more important thing. Being hurt, being a former victim, being under a lot of stress, having mental health problems – these things do not make it ok to hurt other people. Many hurt and damaged people manage not to hurt anyone else. It’s not inevitable and no free passes should be given.

Don’t tell them to be stoical. Don’t tell them it will pass, or not to make a fuss, or not to take it to heart. That’s just a way of shutting people down. If what they say makes you uncomfortable, that really shouldn’t be the most important thing. Your mild discomfort at hearing this is nothing compared to actually living with it. This includes being made to feel uncomfortable about someone you liked.

Don’t ask them to put the wellbeing of the community first. Don’t tell them to be silent for fear they will harm the company or the organisation. Any group that puts looking good ahead of caring for the people in it, is toxic. Any group that thinks its reputation is more important than whether it is enabling abuse, will keep enabling abuse and must be stopped. However important you think the community, or the work the group is doing really is, this stuff will rot it to the core if undealt with.

Don’t make the victim responsible for sorting out the situation. Don’t make it their job to better humour and pacify their abuser. Don’t tell them to put up with it. Listen to them, support them, act to make safer and healthier spaces. If you truly can’t tell who the bully is in a situation, working broadly to improve safety will either sort things out or make it clearer what’s going on. Sometimes people truly believe they are victims because they can’t accept others holding reasonable boundaries or can’t bear being given a ‘no’ as an answer. The person who is able to say no is usually the person with the power in any given situation, and the person who is not allowed to say no is the person who needs your help.

Dealing with fear – some advice

For many people who already feel marginalised, the current political situation is causing a great deal of fear. I’ve lived with anxiety for some years now and I’ve learned a lot about what helps and what doesn’t. This post is primarily for people encountering someone else’s fear and wondering what would be helpful.

Just because you aren’t afraid of something doesn’t mean it is unreasonable for someone else to fear it. They will have reasons. Dismissing the fear doesn’t reduce it for the other person or help them at all. Taking them seriously will mean they feel validated and supported, which will help a bit, and in the meantime, you can learn how things impact on them.

You may want to offer comfort. The trouble is that when someone is deep in a state of fear, attempts to jolly them along, or make light of it don’t help. It just feels like being ignored and dismissed. Ask yourself if you want to make them feel better, or if you want them to seem better so that you could be more comfortable yourself. That’s not an easy thing to look at, but, it makes a lot of odds if you can. You may be trying to protect yourself by not wanting to take seriously the things they fear. This is understandable, but likely it won’t be helpful.

Many people are afraid not simply of what will come, but of what’s already happening. This is important stuff to hear. It is often not speculative fear, it is coming from a place of things being awful already and being afraid simply of it carrying on, not changing. Whether we’re talking about lack of mental health provision, climate change, poverty, lack of jobs, cost of housing, work insecurity, pressures on the NHS, (or medical costs if you’re somewhere that’s an issue) social breakdown, racism, threats to minority groups – these things are all happening. It’s not irrational to fear they may get worse, but there’s plenty enough to fear in just keeping the current levels.

If you are better resourced than average, you may feel more secure and more insulated. You may be confident that you have the skills, intelligence, education and opportunities to keep you and those you care about safe. That’s nice for you. But, most of us are in reality only a paycheck or two from disaster at any time. Most of us could be put on our knees by the misfortune of a serious setback. It may be more in your interests to stand in solidarity with people who have been unlucky and to sympathise with their fears.

There isn’t much that can be done to alleviate fear right now because there truly is a lot out there to be afraid of. What we can do is take each other seriously and show each other care and respect. We can have different anxieties and priorities and still be on the same side – wanting things to be better and more hopeful than they are.

Communities of care

Life is sometimes very hard indeed. The balance varies for each of us to outlandish degrees. While access to money can ease the other crap into being more bearable, even wealth can be stripped away by misfortune. Nothing is certain. This is why community is so important. It is in connecting with each other, to share the good and the bad alike, that we make life bearable. This can mean exposing ourselves to more pain as we open our hearts to the suffering of others, but it is utterly worth it.

In sharing, we learn, which can make us better prepared for our own setbacks. In sharing, we develop resilience and resources to tackle problems. We develop banks of knowledge and insight so we’re not individually re-inventing the wheel as the same old problems come round again. Very little is new. Death and sorrow, poverty and exploitation, tyrants in power and the commons in peril – I could sing you songs from a hundred years ago that tell all the same stories.

There is an approach that resents and resists other people speaking from this distress. There are many ways to silence discomfort. Ridicule, suggesting it is ‘over the top’ making comparisons to those who are, by some undisclosed measure ‘much worse off’ we can make people in pain shut up. This means we do not have to feel any responsibility for helping them. The consequence of this is to increase social isolation and to increase misery by a number of means. Today I was told that by expressing when I am unhappy and getting support, I have got into a self-perpetuating cycle that encourages me to stay in a place of pain rather than deal with it. Nice one! By this means am I to be shamed into silence, and into isolation, whilst being told I am being helped. It is bullshit, and needs labelling as such. How do we handle, as communities, the people who undermine community? One for another day perhaps.

When we work as communities to support each other, what happens is that everyone who today takes a supporting role, gets to feel useful and valuable. You are holding someone up, this is massively useful and valuable. It also demonstrates your membership of the community, expressing and reinforcing bonds of connection. You know, that when you get into trouble, the same thing will happen – people will rally round with kind words at the very least. There may be useful advice, wisdom, practical help, insight, opportunities – all of which could not have flowed to you if you had not expressed distress and need in the first place.

We all have off-days and periods of crisis. It is part of being alive and being human. If I sit here telling you about how great my life is, because I’m published/married/a Druid/have good karma/think positive thoughts and I create an illusion of joyful perfection, that could easily make it seem that there is a reason why my life is damn near perfect, and your isn’t, and the reason is you. That’s also bullshit, and damaging. If I own my crap, and own that crap happens randomly to us all, you know that I am not somehow magically better than you, and there is no innate failure in you that explains why things do not go so well sometimes. When you own your crap in turn, I am reminded that there’s nothing uniquely wrong with me, I am about as flawed and confused as the next person, and that’s ok. We’re allowed. I’m not faultlessly compassionate or infallibly wise. I make bad calls. We all do.

We are all, also now and then graced with moments of shining awesomeness. If you’re in an alienated culture where you can’t mention the shit, but you dare to mention the glorious success, the odds are some irate bastard will knock you down for that, too. In a culture where knocking people down is normal, anything that isn’t beige and forgettable makes you a target. Just look at how we treat our celebrities! In a real community, there is room for the sorrows and the celebrations, for the triumphs and disasters, for the bad days and the good ones, in whatever mix we get them. There is room to delight in each other, be proud of each other, support, enable, nurture and help each other through good times and bad times alike.

If you’re sharing a word, a thought, a moment, you are part of that community for me and I really appreciate it.