Emotional support can be manifested in different ways, but it generally involves respect, acceptance, encouragement, emotional validation, compassion, but also concrete actions by which you can help the other person based on what they said they need.
Being there for a loved one when they are going through a difficult time in their life means, first of all, respecting their feelings. Maybe you wish you could spare them their pain, maybe you feel powerless and you wish you could to more for them so you hurry to give them unsolicited advice or you try to "encourage" them by distracting their attention from what concerns them, but if you feel the need to do all this, you may not feel comfortable with the emotions that person is experiencing or expressing.
How else can you invalidate, block or censor someone else's feelings?
First of all, pay attention to the context - if, for example, a friend is used to calling you or is looking for you frequently, regardless of the limits you have communicated to them, only to endlessly complain about their problems and to vent their emotions, it is your right to communicate to them, in an assertive manner, that this bothers you / to remind them of the previously set limits / to tell them that you can no longer help them in this regard etc. Maybe you tried to do everything in your power to help that person, but if he/she doesn't want to do anything, to help him/herself, but she/he only wishes to complain to anyone who is willing to listen to her/him, reaffirming your own personal limits and boundaries doesn’t mean that you invalidate their experience or feelings. You can't be endlessly available whenever someone needs to vent about something, just as it's unrealistic to expect others to be available to you all the time.
On the other hand, if you are asked for help and you are willing to offer that help or if you approach the other person, being interested in how they feel and if you can help them with something, really listen to that person and give them the space they need to express their feelings and thoughts, avoiding to judge, to criticize, to interrupt them, to make it about you - "you don't know what happened to me, let me tell you...", or to hurry to offer solutions.
Avoid saying things like:
- oh, it's not that serious / important;
- stop feeling this way / you have no reason to feel like that / you shouldn't feel like that, but you should...;
- come on, cheer up! / smile, you look bad when you are upset!;
- it's not worth it;
- be the better person and give up;
- get a grip already!;
- you should do X thing;
- they did this to you because they were angry / upset / afraid or... "oh, they weren't serious, just move on" (that lets them off the hook);
- I told you so! That's what happens if you don't listen to me!;
- stop thinking about it (or do your best to avoid the thoughts and emotions you have about a problem, instead of facing that problem);
- what is the big deal?;
- how can you think like that / say that?;
- you have better things to do instead of wasting your time with this (although maybe that is really important for him or her);
- you are too sensitive / you exaggerate / it makes no sense to react like that;
- think positive (given that he or she has not even been able to become aware or process his or her own emotions).
Why can the above do more harm than good? Taking the example "it's not worth it", maybe from your point of view it really doesn't make sense to waste your energy for the reason that your friend is wasting it, but this is only your perspective, not his. If he had known better or could not have been affected, he would not have been affected. Maybe what he needs this moment is to feel listened to, to clarify his/her emotions - "why does he feel that way / what does he think and how does he relate to the situation that consumes his energy", "what affected him the most? / what triggered that situation?", to release those emotions and to be in a place where it’s ok to express oneself (not to feel judged, criticized, invalidated). What he can do to change his perspective / situation will depend on him, whether he wants to change it or not, and whether he feels the time is right for him to do so.
What can you do instead?
- listen to them and validate their experience - "I understand", "it's ok to feel this way", "you have the right to feel what you feel" and so on;
- focus on them and avoid making it about you, don’t make comparisons because even if you have been through a similar situation, it’s very possible that you felt differently or that you perceived and managed differently what has happened. Of course, giving a personal example can help, but it depends on the context and how it is used. For example, if your friend is in a crisis because he/she just lost someone, if you tell them "I also lost my father and I got over it," he may feel worse and helpless because in those moments he/she actually feels that he/she will never be able to overcome that. Show him/her compassion and understanding and don’t try to rush or force his/her healing;
- don't make assumptions about how he/she's feeling and don't try to tell him/her how he/she should feel - maybe when confronted with a certain event, you expect him or her to feel a certain way because this is how you would feel or because you consider it "normal", but don't forget that each person goes through their personal filter the experiences they go through and can react differently, and this doesn’t mean that their reaction is "wrong";
- show your support - "I'm sorry to hear that", "I'm sorry you're going through that", "can I help you with something?", "I'm here for you" - these simple words can give the other person a greater support than we could expect. At the same time, think about what actions you can take to be there for that person (who at the moment may not even know how he or she needs to be helped), give them the options you thought about and if he/she agrees with what you propose to him/her, go on;
- give them the space they need - just as we can help the other one by listening to them, by being there for them physically or emotionally, by saying words of encouragement, we can just as well help them if we take a step back when they need to take some personal time and space to be with themselves, to process their emotions, to put their thoughts in order, to find their peace;
- respect their limits - if they refuse your help, if they need something other than what you can offer them, if they choose another path that you may consider inappropriate, don’t try to impose your will, to force them or to help them against their will because you will end up doing the exact opposite;
- suggest them to seek professional help, but also accept if they don’t want to do so - if you notice that they are overwhelmed by the situation, if you notice that their functionality is affected, suggest them to seek the help of a specialist, but also be prepared for a refusal, because as I said above, helping someone against their will isn’t possible;
- help them explore their options, but avoid telling them what to do or not to do - if you offer them certain solutions just like that (which YOU consider appropriate), if you try to persuade them to do as you say or if you do things for them, you induce them that you don’t trust their inner power to make decisions and solve their problems. If a person feels that they need more emotional support from you, they may actually feel imbalanced, may not feel self-reliant, may be confused, and may not see the solutions they have. You don't have to solve their problems for them, but you have to support them to solve those problems themselves;
- encourage them to take care of themselves - if a close one is struggling with certain emotions or difficult times, they may easily forget to pay attention to their own health or may be so caught up that they stop listening to their needs;
- show your appreciation - in any kind of close relationship, showing your appreciation and love not only when the other person feels disconcerted, discouraged or is going through difficult times, but every day spent together, helps to strengthen that feeling of connection and intimacy and helps the other person to feel valued and supported.
In the end, don't forget to take care of yourself – in order to be able to help someone else, to support someone else, or to be there for someone, it's important to be ok with yourself, to take care of yourself and your physical, mental and emotional health and wellbeing, so be careful and seek to obtain a balance between what you do for others and what you do for yourself.
What does emotional support mean to you?
Dr. Ursula Sandner