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How do we help each-other when we are both suffering?

Updated: Dec 18, 2022

In today’s society, there is no shortage of suffering. Sometimes it feels like everyone around us is not doing okay. The pressures and changes that came with the onset of COVID shifted our norms as individuals and as a society. We lost access to our usual support systems and self-care practices. We adapted and adjusted, and then before long we needed to shift again. There has been a lot of grief, a lot of trauma and pain, a lot of fear and uncertainty and a whole lot of anxiety. On top of these covid related stressors, normal life has continued and so has the natural (or unnatural) losses, hurt and hardships we as humans experience.

So, this leads me to where I started. We are struggling and it feels like everyone else is too. If you are one of the lucky ones who is feeling okay at the moment, then I could guess that there are friends, family or co-workers around you who may not be in the same place.

I am writing this blog not to add further weight to your experiences or to point out all the suffering around us, but to hopefully provide some useful steps and tools to help us better support one another when we are collectively in pain. A common question I get asked by my clients is “How do I share how I am feeling without dumping on those around me?”. Behind this is often a belief that my emotions are ‘too much’ for others to handle or a fear of overwhelming someone who may already have a lot on their plate. We fear being vulnerable as we are not sure the people around us are in a strong enough place to hold space for our suffering. So instead, we end up pushing our pain inside in an attempt to protect those around us. Inadvertently creating more isolation as we keep everything to ourselves and independently journey through life. This can lead to a state of internalised stress and pain that manifests through physical ailments and a decrease in our wellbeing further. When we don’t communicate vulnerably, we also increase the risk of taking our pain out on those close to us through passive aggression or outbursts of hurt or anger. Consequently, burdening those around us more than if we were able to share the root of the issue. Despite our desire to avoid our emotions, they will eventually catch up to us- one way or another. Instead of trying to navigate our suffering on our own, let’s look at some ways to gain support AND give support when there is a lot going on (because let’s face it, there IS a lot going on).

Firstly, adopt a belief in the resilience of human beings. Humans are known to overcome incredibly difficult and painful circumstances. We have the capacity to heal and repair what has been damaged both physically and emotionally. Holding this belief will give you greater confidence and trust in your own ability to navigate emotions as well as the ability of others to sit in the painful places with you.

Secondly, check what your expectations are when sharing with a friend. Do you want them to fix the problem for you or are you expecting some advice? If these resonate with you, you may need to do some work to shift your expectations. This expectation may be putting pressure on someone that they are unable to meet and could lead to them feeling overwhelmed and burdened with your suffering. Instead, it’s important to remind yourself that ultimately only YOU are responsible for your emotions. A friend is simply a kind, safe person to listen, empathise and offer support (which sometimes may come in the form of a challenge).

Thirdly, it can be helpful to be clear with your friends regarding what you are needing. If you are needing space to vent, then ask if they are able to listen. If you are needing encouragement or validation, ask for this. Or if you are wanting some advice or guidance, ask for their opinion. This clarity allows your friend to know what you are needing and in return they can be clear about if they can provide it in that moment.

Fourth, pay attention to how much you are filling the conversation. Mutual friendships should involve give and take, where each person has times to support and be supported. When you are both struggling at the same time, this might look like making a conscious effort to spend time processing both of your struggles. You will often notice that after you have let out some steam and expressed your emotions, you will have greater space and openness to then gently hold your friend’s emotions and processing (or vice versa).

Lastly, acknowledge the season you are in and the limitations you may both have. It’s important to be honest with the energy you have and then creative with how you can spend this energy in a useful way. Shared activities that are refreshing for both of you should be the goal. For example, you may enjoy going for a casual walk, grabbing a coffee, talking on the phone or possibly sitting in silence watching a movie in each other’s company.

You may not always get this balance ‘right’, but learning to understand yourself and your own needs, and then how to communicate these will always help to create healthier relationships. In a time of heavy suffering, friendships and connection can be a balm for our souls so I would encourage you to lean in to this vulnerable and brave space.

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