The weather is cooling down, the leaves are starting to change -–what that means for me is long car rides with the windows rolled down, playing some quality tunes. One of my personal favorite shout-in-the-car songs is Lean on Me by Bill Withers. Not only is “Lean on Me” a classic crowd-pleaser jam, but Mr. Withers also has some profound things to say about how to be a supportive friend. Experiences of trauma and mental health crises are becoming increasingly prominent, so more and more people are asking, “How can I be a supportive friend?” There can be a lot of fear and anxiety in caring for someone who is struggling. You may be wondering, “Am I saying the right thing? Am I bothering them? What can I do?” Both the 1970s hit “Lean on Me” and the latest psychological research have helpful insights about caring for a friend in need.
“Sometimes in our lives, we all have pain, we all have sorrow.”
Mr. Withers gets it. We all experience difficult seasons, highs and lows. When a close friend or family member experiences pain or sorrow, you most likely are also affected. It can be overwhelming, depressing, infuriating, etc., when a friend goes through a traumatic event. What do you do with all of those feelings? Some people may be tempted to bury those feelings, focusing solely on the one afflicted and ignoring their own emotional reaction. Others may lay it all out there, sharing openly with those affected who are also anxious/scared/nervous about the situation. Neither of those options are great. Instead, Susan Silk’s ring theory offers a helpful strategy for thinking about emotional support for others and yourself. The concept is simple: Comfort In. Dump Out. The person afflicted is in the center of the circle; the next circle is intimate friends/family, the next circle is close friends, the next are acquaintances, and so on. The person in the center circle can cry, vent, and talk to anyone. Other people in other circles should certainly express their feelings and emotions, too! But not to people in the smaller rings, only to the larger rings outside of themselves. This aids in allowing everyone involved to express their emotions without overwhelming or dumping on those most intimately affected.
“Lean on me when you’re not strong … for it won’t be long till I’m gonna need somebody to lean on.”
Yet another killer line from Mr. Withers further acknowledging that supporting friends is never a one-way street. Seasons change, and you may rely on your friends the same way they rely on you. Suppose you find yourself almost always supporting others and rarely looking to others for comfort. In that case, you should draw boundaries in some relationships or examine your motivations when engaging in a helping role. Everyone loves to be helpful. That’s only natural! When helping becomes a core part of your identity, and you can’t allow yourself to be helped, you may want to take a step back and ponder how you can most effectively care for your friends without becoming codependent or running the risk of burnout.
“I’m right up the road; I’ll share your load, if you just call me”
Hmmm, you may be wondering how do I share the load in a healthy way? What does sharing the load look like? It can look like a bunch of different things. A helpful behavioral coping strategy for someone who has just experienced trauma can be less internal focus. AKA, just do something with your loved one who’s going through a hard time. Cater it to what works for you all; it can be as minor as going grocery shopping together or a whole day affair, exploring a new part of town together. Sharing the load can also look extremely practical. Check-in on basic needs: is your loved one getting adequate sleep, eating a balanced diet, and engaging in some form of exercise? Of course, this should be done in a compassionate, understanding way rather than a condemning or judgmental way. Another way to share the load is to be a listening ear. Don’t press for details or immediate disclosure after a trauma, but if a friend chooses to open up to you, be willing to listen. Try not to interrupt, make assumptions, or give unsolicited advice. Be sure to sincerely thank your loved one for trusting you with their story. And, of course, after hearing something traumatic secondhand, you may feel dysregulated or overwhelmed. Be sure to take care of yourself after taking care of others.
If you want to learn more about how to care for yourself when caring for others, don’t hesitate to give us a call. When a loved one is recovering and healing from a trauma, you are also totally allowed to feel overwhelmed, scared, sad, etc., when supporting your loved one. We would love to support you through this journey and help you work through some of those emotions.
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