It’s never easy to see someone suffer. Our humanity is our compassion for others’ plight. We are hard-wired to reduce others’ distress.
Whether it’s their health, relationships, family, money or work strife, it’s always hard to be on the periphery of other peoples’ challenges and crises.
Somehow, unhappiness can feel even worse at this time of year against the cliched festive backdrop–notorious in itself for being stressful (and sometimes anything but merry).
If someone you care about is hurting, here’s our practical guide to how you can support them.
Reach out and make the first move; be obviously available
Knowing what to say or do for a friend or colleague who is in a ‘bad place’ is something all of us will unfortunately come face to face with at some stage in our lives.
People who have suffered terrible upset often say people ignoring them (out of fear of making matters worse, awkwardness or embarrassment) is one of the worst aspects of their situation.
The reality is there probably isn’t much that will make matters worse—so if this is a concern you have, try to push through it. Their needs are greater than yours at this moment. Try to accept that your own discomfort and sadness is nothing compared to the pain the other person is going through.
Here are some ways to help you get started:
- Pop by their desk or pick up the phone, knock on the door and keep it short.
- I’m sorry to hear what’s happened. I just want to let you know I’m thinking of you.
- Text is ok too – one of the few genuine upsides of devices in our lives. Immediacy.
- I’m concerned about how you’re doing. I’d like to help.
- Check-in regularly. Light touch and often.
Whilst you unfortunately can’t wave a magic wand or turn the clocks back to make the issues go away, there are many kind gestures and words that can help your colleague or friend face the next step of their journey.
The ‘quiet’ part is about doing it gently – low-key, no big grandiose efforts necessary (or even helpful).
- Small gestures go a long way. Do you have a favourite book you can pass on, a small plant, a nice bubble bath to be used later that day? Avoid showering with gifts – remember ‘low-key’.
- Don’t speak too much, the important thing is just to be there, show up and sit together. Listen 95% of the time. Don’t over-share your own problems – it’s not a competition and it won’t help them feel better about their own.
- Be diplomatic; some chat about your own life is a good idea, but it’s a good time to tone down how marvellously things are going for you at work, with your family etc. It’s not that the other person isn’t happy for you, it’s just a bit hard to hear and might add to their sadness.
- When offering any help, remember it’s usually hard for the other person to accept or articulate what you can do. So, our advice is just get stuck in… but only to the mundane aspects. At home, stick some washing on, get some groceries, prepare a meal, help keep kids’ lives as normal as possible. In the office, take the load off where you can (but be careful not to disempower). Create some flexibility and options.
- Whisk them away for a walk, make them a cup of tea or create some other thoughtful distraction. Maybe take them to see a movie (nothing too dark). The idea is to create some small moments of relief and lightness.
- Even the shortest of text messages (a single emoji!) can provide comfort and reassurance the other person is not going through this alone. Scribble a quick note. Ensure you are clear there is no pressure or expectation of a response being necessary.
- Don’t take silence, abruptness or any other out-of-character strangeness personally. When the bottom of someone’s world has just fallen out, accept they may not be themselves. Expect they will be out of sorts – preoccupied, distant or emotional. It’s not about you!
Be a supportive friend or colleague not a counsellor, problem-solver or advice-giver
It’s not your place, and it’s not helpful to try and ‘fix’.
It can be exhausting for a friend to have to explain why even your most well-intended of solutions won’t work. The issue may be arguably beyond solving in any event.
Hold back the clichés. Saying ‘Everything happens for a reason’ might get you a (deserved) punch on the nose.
Maybe one of the best things you can do in that moment is help take their mind off their issues; a small smile, distraction. For people suffering through a long period of difficulty, it can be extremely draining to feel they have to keep talking about their issues to keep friends and colleagues in the loop. Don’t become an inadvertent energy drainer.
Don’t stick your nose in.
Refrain from asking for details. They’ll offer them if and when they want to. Don’t ask questions for your own salacious understanding or natural curiosity; be sensitive to the other person’s privacy and readiness to talk.
You don’t need to know any of the details to be empathic. The other person may be ashamed, embarrassed or simply too sad to articulate what’s going on for them. Be explicit that you’re not judging or advising, simply that you feel for them and want to support them.
Acceptance of unfairness/injustice
One of the hardest aspects for many people going through traumatic times is dealing with a sense of injustice – where there is a realistic appreciation that they are fighting a losing battle, being wronged, feeling blamed or treated in ways that are perceived as deeply unfair.
Why me? What did I do to deserve this? How did this happen?
These are the questions swirling incessantly through most people’s heads in the early stages. Recurring thoughts tend to centre on statements like: It’s not fair! It’s wrong! It can’t be true. There must be a mistake. Surely someone will fix this.
Helping an individual process what they are going through and what they can/can’t control or influence can be one of the most helpful conversations you can facilitate.
- What choices do they have open to them, what can they be agents of change or influence over and what will be a futile expenditure of energy, emotion, time, money or other resources?
- How can they compartmentalise their distress into aspects or issues where it can be productive to reflect, ponder and plan out a strategy to achieve a certain outcome, versus where they may indeed be fighting a losing battle?
- Who might be able to support or advise them? Medical, financial, legal, spiritual, emotional?
- This takes time—don’t rush it. You can certainly play a role in helping someone to adjust and accept their new circumstances sooner than they might otherwise if left to their own devices.
- Psychologically, recalibration to the ‘new norm’ is a critical stage to feeling okay again.
Two of my most favourite sayings are that ‘shit happens’ and ‘we don’t get to choose all our cards in life – only how we play them’.
I don’t mean this to be depressing—quite the opposite. I personally find a great deal of comfort, perspective and relief from these guiding principles. And those who know me know I’m a cheerful optimist (just as well).
I think it’s only the very tiny minority who feel like they are leading a truly blessed problem-free life without hardship or suffering. You don’t have to scratch too deep to discover that most people at some stage have had to adjust to unwelcome and often deeply distressing changes in their circumstances; things that we don’t ask for that change the expected course of our lives. It’s part of living. When there is an acceptance of this, adjustment and recalibration to our new path with a wiser and usually different outlook becomes possible.
Speaking as someone who knows from both first-hand personal experience as well as a lifetime of clinical practice in the coaching room, to accept and recalibrate is easier said than done. To quote another often used cliché, ‘it’s a journey’.
Finally, remember to take care of yourself.
It’s easy to get so caught up and upset about what other people are going through that you forget to put on your oxygen mask first. In the words of Julia Roberts: Big mistake. Big. Huge!
The Dalai Lama implores us to be ‘wise-selfish’ and I think there’s no better way to finish off our blog for the year than this reminder that compassion is good for us; it cultivates an inner happiness independent of receiving kindness. In the Dalai Lama’s sense of the concept, compassion does not just imply sympathy or charity for someone else—it includes concern and responsibility for our own care.
So, give self-compassion a go this festive season: have a massage, read a book, have a bath, call a dear friend, make sure you weave into your life the things that sustain you.