Helping others when they need us is admirable. Coming to someone else’s aid also tends to make us feel good. However, especially when it involves emotional struggles, it can be easy to lose ourselves as we help others. We may abandon our own needs.
It is objectively hard to dive into our friend’s emotions and absorb what’s wrong like an emotional sponge. For many of us, that kind of emotional stimulation impacts our own mental health. So watching our emotions and prioritizing our own wellbeing always comes first – like putting on your own oxygen mask before helping others.
The following tips should help you build up your resilience and learn how to check in with yourself while helping someone else. In most cases, it is possible to support a friend without draining your emotional batteries.
Support yourself with resilience training techniques
In a nutshell, resilience training involves learning how to maintain a helpful perspective for yourself in the face of adversity, in order to bounce back more easily. These techniques can be incorporated in therapy, as well as within organizations, and by individuals, themselves.
Without formal resilience training, the following are some ways in which you can build resilience and stay strong through someone else’s struggle.
1. Appreciate the resilience you already have
Recognize the coping skills you already use that make you resilient. At first, this seems like a silly exercise. However, once you really start thinking past the first round of generic adjectives, you start to see where your strengths are.
This can help you identify the skills you already have, which you can use when supporting a friend. Thinking about your existing skills also makes you more confident in your ability to help — while helping you identify areas you can work on.
2. Remember it’s OK to feel drained
When you help others, it really can take a toll, and that can cause you to feel like an inadequate friend. Feeling exhausted doesn’t make you a bad friend, but beating yourself up about it can reduce your ability to help.
Be compassionate with yourself when you are drained or sad or tired. That does not mean that you’re a bad friend or that you’re weak. Don’t beat yourself up about your feelings, because it is okay to be feeling them. You’re trying; be kind to yourself the way you want to be kind toward your friend.
3. Don’t just cope
Instead of just trying to cope with challenges, how can you take action and actually fix the situation?
Coping does not make the difficulty go away; it just helps you live with the adversity. You can help someone who’s struggling cope, but ensuring your own wellbeing requires action.
Helping may make you feel emotional, overwhelmed, or triggered. Instead of just sucking it up and internalizing these emotions, try to find ways to take charge and improve how you feel.
If you know you’ll be talking to someone who’s struggling, plan on spending 20 minutes to yourself after. Schedule in time for processing and decompressing.
Seek out help of your own. Find someone you can vent to after helping someone else. Journal it out. Plan a recharging activity after you’ve assisted a friend.
Don’t let things just ‘happen’ to you; make things happen.
4. Work on emotion regulation
When helping someone who’s struggling, we may have to restrain our reactions, or stay positive after really tough news. This takes an emotional toll, whether we admit it or not!
Emotion regulation is key. Emotional regulation involves processing and managing your negative emotions in a way that is healthy for you but also socially acceptable.
Mastering this skill allows you to be not only flexible in having a normal range of emotions, but also delaying certain reactions when necessary. Sometimes we have to tuck issues away for later, for our friend’s sake; but tucking away our issues permanently can damage our own mental health.
5. Set & communicate goals and boundaries
Figure out what your goals and your limitations are.
When you are helping others, what is your goal? Is it to listen and be a shoulder to cry on? Is it to help them think deeper about their struggle? Is it to help them find professional resources for what they’re going through?
By being intentional about what the other person needs and how you can help them, you avoid taking on all their emotions as your own. You also know what to prepare for, and how you may need to care for yourself, after the fact.
In addition, try to communicate your intentions. This is a form of setting both expectations and boundaries, which is crucial to maintaining your mental health while cultivating your relationships with others.
If you don’t feel comfortable doing certain things while helping others, that should be established right off the bat. That way, everyone is on the same page and there won’t be any animosity.
6. Don’t shoulder the burden alone
It can be draining and isolating to help others all the time and to absorb everyone’s emotional energy. Don’t let yourself go through that alone.
Unloading the pressure every once in a while can bolster your resilience – that way you don’t internalize what you’re helping someone else with.
If you feel comfortable, share your feelings with a friend, family member, therapist, or online support group. You don’t have to explain what the exact situation is if you don’t want to break your friend’s trust. But research says letting it out is an effective way to relieve yourself of emotional burdens – even if they’re not your own.
Remember that you get to decide who you let in and who you communicate with about your struggles. So don’t feel pressured to share with people you don’t feel comfortable with.
7. Prioritize your mental health
Remember to consistently check in with yourself and prioritize your mental health. You need self-care. When you’re drained, you can’t help others to the best of your ability, which means you need to take care of yourself for both yourself and others.
Being burnt out and emotionally overwhelmed by helping others is totally normal, and it is okay to take a step back when you need it.
Ultimately, you’re not the one responsible for your friend’s pain. If helping is starting to hurt you, it is more than okay to back off and not get further involved. Everyone’s heard it, but again: you can’t take care of others if you aren’t taking care of yourself.