For people who are empathetic and naturally giving, it can be way easier to pour energy into helping others than it is to say that you’re going through a really tough time and need to have some energy directed your way, especially if they’ve experienced trauma. It’s even harder still if things aren’t great in life of the person you want support from.
When something big messes up in my life, I have noticed certain trends both in myself and in my support system, and after talking with folks who share some personality traits with me, it seems that these communication breakdowns are really common. And so, here are my tips for supporting your friend who loves to give, at least if that friend is me. Of course, everyone is different and you should talk to those you love about what they’ll need from you!
- Make sure you’re giving them space to talk, not waiting for them to come to you
When my brain isn’t doing well, I feel like a burden. I feel like that most of the time anyway, but when things aren’t great it’s harder to ignore. If we’re close, I’ll likely tell you that the Big Bad Thing happened and leave it at that, assuming that you’ll follow-up with me if you a) have the ability and b) have the interest. I’m not about to force you to engage with the really hard stuff. If you don’t check in with me after that, I’ll assume it’s not something you’re willing or able to discuss. Instead of bringing it up again and again, I’ll say things like the fact that I’m low-energy or things are kinda rough right now and not say anything more without you making it clear that in that very moment you’re available if I want to talk. Don’t tell me to “let you know if I need something” because there’s a 99.9% chance that I will not take you up on that. If you tell me that you have energy for me right then, that’s another matter
- Related to that: understand the difference between “making them talk about it” and “being there”
It is entirely possible to support me without forcing me to go into details. If I tell you that I’m not ready to talk about it, leave it at that. Learn to say “do you want to talk about anything?” or “I know you’re going through some stuff, let me know if there’s anything that I can do right now” instead of “what happened?” or “how are you feeling after [the trauma]?”. Also recognize that often, allowing the conversation to be about me, my needs, or my interests is often just as good (or better) than it being about the Bad Thing. I likely just need to feel as though we’re talking because you care about me as well, not just so that you can benefit from me in that moment.
- Be aware that they may be slipping into bad habits. Check on them (gently), after asking if they want you to
Traumatic events trigger responses in us, and trauma that we’ve experienced before may cause us to regress to previous unhealthy coping methods. If I’m dealing with sexual/assault, I’ll struggle to eat for a long while after, because my first assault was what started my anorexia as a teen. If I’ve given you permission, check in every now and then about food. Trauma often causes relapses with self harm, drinking, drugs, and more, and it’s hard to tell someone when you’re struggling not to relapse/are relapsing, especially if you’ve been healthy for a while.
- Come to us
I probably want (or at least need) some social time. I’m also unlikely to be able to trek across town. Come over! Or meet me around the corner. Or skype me. Or something that means I’m talking to a real human instead of just words on a screen. Related: if we say you can’t come over because our place is a fucking mess because we can’t do shit right now? You can always offer to help with that. We might not want you to at all, but it might be the greatest thing ever. Personally, hell yes I want you to do my dishes! But not everyone will, and that’s fine too.
- It’s not about you
I know you’ve gone through things too, but if I’m opening up about what I’m dealing with, I likely don’t want your first response to be a story about your life, or you to ask how this impacts things with you, or anything like that. Give me a couple minutes for me, you can ask about that later. Indicating that you’ve gone through something similar and allowing me to ask if I want is okay, but just immediately launching into the story about your life brings us to….
- Before you start venting or sharing something big, ask if they have the energy to help
I mean, good practice no matter what. But if I love you and things are real bad in my life, I’m unlikely to tell you that I need you to kindly shut up because I don’t have the energy to give right then or in that way. Because y’know, I’m convinced that that’s being rude and being rude will make you upset with me and I definitely don’t have the energy to deal with you being upset that I’m hurting over something else. So instead I’ll listen and support you and feel drained and awful and like I have nothing else to give, even to myself. Now, sometimes I’ll want to listen and will be able to support you! But not always. And I’d love it if you could just check in to see where I’m at before launching in.
- Be patient
This isn’t going away overnight, even if we sound cheerful again. We’re trying our best.
- Be as dependable as you ever are, or more
I get it. Dealing with the Big Things are hard for everyone. But I don’t want to worry that the thing that’s bad in my life right now will mess things up with you, too. I don’t want to wonder if I’m losing friends or dynamics or any of that, I want to know that my supporters are there, even when things are worse than they normally are.
What do you wish people would do (or don’t do) to better support you when things are Very Bad?
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