How to Help a Loved One Who’s Struggling

Hello, my name is Jeni, and I am a recovering fixer. 

I first started noticing my penchant for telling other people what to do when I was repeatedly called bossy in elementary school. Later, it became a joke when I’d tell everyone that I had declared business management as my major because, “No matter what happens to the economy, you’re always going to need someone to tell someone else what to do.” 

So when the people around me were struggling with anything from poor sleep to grief, you could leave it to me to tell them why they’re feeling what they’re feeling and what they should do about it. Thankfully, I have been gifted with some saint-like friends who stuck with me despite this knee-jerk reaction to their suffering. 

It took me another couple decades to start unpacking that tendency and why it is such a persistent trait. Why do I feel compelled to “help” in such an unhelpful way, and what is a better approach to supporting my friends, family, and community?

Uncomfortable with feeling uncomfortable

One of the insights I have gleaned during my mindfulness practices is that, because I’m a deeply feeling person (I identify as an empath), I get really uncomfortable when the people around me are uncomfortable. In other words, the boundary between their suffering and mine tends to be blurred unless I notice that the unpleasant emotions I’m feeling do not belong to me. So when I’m on autopilot (which is like 95% of the day), I am eager to “make the bad feelings go away” for them so that I can get back to feeling comfortable.

This is problematic for several reasons (not limited to this list):

  • The world does not revolve around my personal level of comfort.
  • I cannot truly know someone else’s internal experience, so why do I think that I know what is going to make it better?
  • I have had personal experiences with struggle leading to breakthrough, and there can be an empowering benefit to working through my personal hardships in my own time, in my own way. So why would I try to rescue someone from adversity and possibly short-change them the opportunity for massive shifts in their own lives? (And where did this savior complex come from??)

“There’s nothing I can do for you but work on myself. There’s nothing you can do for me but work on yourself.” – Ram Dass

So, how can I help?

What I’m saying might seem paradoxical at first; let me clarify that I’m not suggesting you just smile and shrug your shoulders when you see that someone is having a hard time. I’m suggesting that instead of jumping into “fixer-mode,” you simply start by listening, validating, and honoring their present experience. There is a wonderful quote by David Augsburger that says, “Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person they are almost indistinguishable.” Do not underestimate the power of just being present with someone; by doing so, you become a container in which they might feel safe to explore their own experience mindfully, allowing for the possibility of meaningful insights to surface naturally. 

When Ram Dass, spiritual teacher and author, said, “I can do nothing for you but work on myself… you can do nothing for me but work on yourself,” I feel that he was touching on the truth that in order to hold space for someone who is suffering and to know when and how to support them, I first need to be rooted in my own mindful, compassionate awareness. I need to be in my heart instead of my head, and I need to have cultivated enough resilience and inner strength to be present with profound heartache without getting the proverbial wind knocked out of me. That’s no small feat; it takes consistent, earnest practice over a period of time to build that kind of capacity. 

“I hear you, and I’m here with you.”

There’s so much confusion, anxiety, and rage bubbling up all around us that unless you’re living under a rock, you or someone you love is having a really hard time at any given moment. It’s normal to want to help—compassion is a natural attitude. Let’s each take up the work required to be effective agents of compassion, including learning when to offer what my dear friend refers to as “practical support” in the form of time, money, or effort, and when to offer a listening ear and a heartfelt hug or word of encouragement instead. 

The key to knowing the right thing to do is directly related to our ability to pay attention to the present moment with a curious, nonjudgmental attitude, and to our courage to speak and act from our hearts. That ability is accessible to every single one of us if we look for it.

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