There seems to be endless websites and blogs full of well-meaning people writing about what doesn’t help. I’ve read dozens of articles titled ‘what not to say’ or ‘unhelpful things to do’. There are also lots of articles with amazing advice about what really helped them. I thought I’d share my own thoughts of what helped, so just count this one of many.
So my list, in no particular order:
I wonder how much of my burden is not mine to carry. The minute someone told me this I’ve been unable to forget it. It’s so easy to absorb the pain or stress of those around us. Part of being an empathetic person is putting ourselves in other peoples shoes. When we’re empathetic we make ourselves vulnerable. That’s not a bad thing – don’t get me wrong. We should all be there for our friends and family. Or the person on the street needing a smile. I truly believe in that. But here’s the difference. It’s okay to worry and care but not at our own expense. I seem to be highly permeable when it comes to emotion. If you’re hurting, I’m hurting with you. Your problems, in that moment, are my problems too. But when I’ve done everything I can. When you’re feeling better. I need to be able to let go. I can’t carry your emotions for you. I’ve got enough of my own.
Don’t undermine their pain by making it about you. It can be very hard being a person. We all carry a lot. For some of us it might feel like our life experiences are a burden we carry. Sometimes it can be hard to put aside our own crap so we can be a good friend. Most of us will never do it deliberately. We’d hate to think we’re stealing the attention, but we might unintentionally talk about our own relative experience. When you’ve experienced emotional pain it may feel that by sharing it we’re helping. And it might. I’m not saying don’t do. Just keep it short and practical. Offer it as something they might want to try. Not something they must do. We must remember just because it worked for us, doesn’t mean it will work for them. Maybe it will but they’re not in the right place to try it. There’s a fine line between sharing to help and undermining someone’s experience by talking about our own.
“A successful woman is one who can build a firm foundation with the bricks others have thrown at her”. This is a quote by JK Rowling and it’s partly because she said it that I find it significant. Most of us will know that JK has her own experience of depression. It was in the grips of a depressive episode that she began Harry Potter. Since then she has inspired generations with her writing and set society’s imagination alight with her tales of wizardry. For many she provided a much sought out refuge from life’s journey. Above and beyond this JK is a tower of strength. A true phoenix from the ashes she has built on her success. She also continues to support those who struggle with their own mental illness by responding on social media when people reach out to her. I truly believe she is a great role model and her determination and continued kindness remind me that in my darkest times I can continue. I can re-build a foundation with the bricks life has thrown at me.
This too shall pass. Whether you attribute this to King Solomon or the Persian Sufi poets, I have clung to these four words in some of my hardest moments. Whether plagued by physical or emotional pain I have held these words in my consciousness. They remind me of the transience of pain and that time is fleeting. For however long I must endure the pain, it has to end. It may seem like hours and only be minutes. It may be hours in reality. But there is an end to it. I just have to make it there. For some the knowledge that it must end may not be much of a comfort. It does not alleviate the pain. But when I find myself starting to struggle this gives me something to hold on to.
Say no! This is my final piece of advice and one of the ones which is hardest to follow. As a society we tend towards being a group of yes men. We’ll bend over backwards to help others. We’ll agree to do something even when our to-do list is spiraling out of control. We’re great friends and family but we’re not great owners of our own body and well being. We’ve silenced the voice inside ourselves that asks for a break. We don’t know how to take a timeout anymore. There’s an over-whelming pressure to say yes to taking on more work, socializing, going to the gym, cooking the picture perfect meal – the list goes on. Whether it’s a fear of letting ourselves or others down. We need to break free of what is holding us back. Saying no can give us that extra bit of space, little increment of time to look after ourselves. It can also be liberating saying no; breaking a habit we’ve reinforced over the years. It begins to feel a bit like a guilty pleasure – the more I do it the easier it gets – although I’d hesitate to say it will ever be easy.