I love you. And your stress is stressing me out.
A lot of my work as a coach is spent helping people manage their stress. There are many ways to do this – writing about feelings in a journal, meditating, exercising, coloring, gardening, to name a few. My clients are extremely resourceful when it comes to figuring out what works for them and then using these skills to turn down the dial on stress (especially the ones who happened to take my course, Coping for the Long Haul. Just saying,)
But recently a client brought up a different kind of stress: the kind that happens when someone close to us is going through something difficult and we become their sounding board.
“What’s wrong with that,” you’re wondering. “Isn’t that what friends, family members, spouses, parents do? We support the people we love through difficult situations”.
We do. But it can take a toll on us. And given that many of us are already stretched to the stress limit these days, taking on someone else’s stress can push us over the edge.
So how can we be supportive of others while also caring for ourselves? Let’s break it down:
First, what is the person asking of us? Do they want us to offer advice or just listen? We’re often in such a hurry to fix whatever is hurting the people we love we may not take the time to find out what’s expected of us. So a good place to begin is by identifying the other person’s reason for speaking with us in the first place.
If the person is asking for advice –
As much as possible, encourage people to solve problems for themselves. Sometimes they have a hunch but they’re afraid to express it out loud, or they’re reluctant to take action for some unspoken reason. Before jumping into “rescue mode”, ask the person about their ideas and then help them talk through the pros and cons of each. With a little help they may be able to come to a decision for themselves and take the necessary action.
What if they have no ideas?
In this case, help them to zero in on what they can and can’t control about the situation. Maybe they haven’t come up with a solution because, in reality, they’re powerless to fix whatever is wrong. If this is the case, gently point it out and ask what, if anything, they can control and what they’re willing to do about it.
What if they just want someone to listen to them?
As a friend or family member the greatest gift we can give to a person who needs to vent is our presence. Just listen. Remember, they aren’t asking us to fix anything so there's no need to jump into a role no one is asking us to play. If they’re angry, acknowledge their anger. If they’re sad, acknowledge their sadness. Express empathy by saying something like, “I’m so sorry you’re going through this”. This signals that the person has been heard and their feelings have been acknowledged, and often this is all it takes for the person to feel supported.
What if the person keeps bringing up the same problem?
This can be really hard in a relationship where there’s an emotional connection. It’s hard to watch the people we really care about rehearsing the same wounds over and over. On the other hand, these are often the kinds of relationships where we can be completely honest about what we’re observing in the other person. Someone I’m close to once told me, “That’s the third time you’ve talked about this problem and it doesn’t sound like you’ve done anything about it. The next time you bring it up, I want you to tell me about what’s changed”. Of course, the first two times I’d brought up the problem she’d listened attentively and offered some steps I could take to sort out my feelings, none of which I’d taken. So when the third time came around she felt justified in challenging me. And she was right. Had she continued to listen to me, I’d have kept talking about the same thing without taking action. And that wouldn’t have been good for either of us.
Here are some other things to keep in mind:
These are stressful times for everyone so we can all expect people to be more vocal about their problems. In other words, don’t be surprised if people are more inclined to open up to you. Instead, be mentally prepared and have a plan to be supportive while protecting your own mental and emotional well-being.
Revisit your boundaries. Know what you have to give to others at this time and what would push you beyond your limit. Practice saying things like, “I can’t have this conversation right now. Let me get a good night’s sleep and then I’ll see where I’m at”. “I’m sorry this is such a challenging time for you. It’s been hard on all of us. In fact, I’m not up to taking on any additional problems at the moment”.
If the person in need is a family member, work with other family members to coordinate support between you.
Be honest. If you’re unable to be someone else’s supportive other, say so. Let go of the idea that you have to be the strong person for everyone around you, all the time.
Develop, practice, and maintain your coping skills. Whatever you do to keep yourself grounded and stable, keep doing it. Now more than ever.
Which reminds me ... I’ll be offering Coping for the Long Haul for the second time, starting July 15th. It’s a four-week course that offers practical and personalized strategies for coping with stress. Best of all it’s FREE*. There are limited spaces available, so it you’re interested, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Participants are asked to make a donation to a non-profit of their choice. Pro tip: Showing your support for causes you believe in is a great way to relieve stress.