How To ... Help Someone Who is Suffering
When someone we care about or love is in pain, we can often feel somewhat at a loss. After all, it is difficult to stand witness emotions such as intense sadness, anguish, grief, pain or even anger. Typically, one’s urge may be to ‘fix’ - to do something, or to say “You’ll be OK”; or “Just think happy and you’ll BE happy!” and while the intention probably originates from a place of wanting to help, it may be helpful if we think about how such things can be interpreted by the person who is suffering.
Many years ago, just about half my lifetime ago in fact, I experienced a sudden and tragic loss, and my world felt like it was crashing around me. Not long after, a very close and important person in my life *Mandy*, told me to ‘Just think happy and you’ll be happy”. At the time, I felt a visceral sense of abandonment and a complete rupture of a relationship which had once felt secure and then no longer was. But what I am able to understand now, that I could not then, was that my feelings of intense grief were possibly experienced as so overwhelming to *Mandy that she had to disavow them in order to protect herself. So, my feelings were likely denied of their existence as they evoked something too big and too scary for her to cope with. Hindsight (and maturity of course) allows me to better understand this, yet the repercussions of having my feelings belittled and disregarded did the exact opposite of what *Mandy had intended, as I felt more misunderstood and lonely within my emotions, which just heightened their intensity.
You may be wondering what the appropriate response would have been? Now, this is the interesting bit: perhaps if there was just a simple communication of ‘I’m here’ - that would have been enough.
When people are ‘not-ok’ and are not able to express this as they are expected to ‘be ok’, this causes an emotional dissonance – an experience where on the outside you are smiling but on the inside you are crying. Which in turn creates a conflict. So, unless safe relationships are found in which this dissonance can be dealt with and healthier coping strategies can be found, we may develop unhelpful ways to cope. Intense anger issues may develop, as well as difficulties with depression, anxiety, substance abuse and so on.
Throughout my years of studies of psychology and complicated psychological theories & concepts, I find that I keep coming back to the ones that focus on human attachment and connection. One such concept is from The Circle of Security Program – Being With. It is so simple, and yet so profound in affecting the ways in which we can help someone who is in the throes of emotional turmoil.
By Being With someone, we communicate our emotional availability to them. We recognise and respect feelings by staying with them rather than denying their importance and focusing on how to ‘get rid’ of them.
Ok, so now you might be wondering HOW this actually helps…
Let’s put ourselves in the position of someone who is in pain. We can imagine their internal dialogue may look something like this:
a) I feel intensely overwhelmed by an emotion (sadness, anger, grief, anguish etc )
b) My feelings are so overwhelming that they feel chaotic and I feel lonely and scared in this state of being engulfed by my emotions
c) You are here and simply Be With me. Your presence helps me feel a little less alone, and a little less scared.
d) In turn, this makes the moment and the feelings a little more bearable for me.
e) Your presence helps me to feel secure enough to organise the feelings that had felt chaotic and can help me to move forward
Of course this is somewhat of an oversimplification as things are not always so straight-forward, but it is certainly a very good place to start.
So the take away for today is: our words are often less important than the consistency and reliability of our presence in another’s life.
If you would like to find out more about The Circle of Security or you would like to explore how you could help yourself or others more effectively, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or find out more about me at www.jhb-psychology.co.za