I think one of the most shocking experiences in my life was the news that the teenage son of a friend had died in a tragic accident. Hearing that the young man had lost his life so unexpectedly and tragically, was an emotional blow so strong, that the pain felt almost physical, yet the hardest part was trying to reach out to the family of the young man. I felt that even with my years of training, and working on tough cases, I was not prepared because the blow was too sudden and too close. When I finally managed to gather the strength to reach out, the only words I could say were on the lines of even though I wished I had the power to say something to make the family feel better, I had no words to say other than I was deeply saddened by what happened and that I was there for them should they need anything, and it really did not feel enough.
In my practice I often have people who are struggling with a similar situation. A loved one could be struggling with martial issues, lost someone or something important or going through health problems and instead of reaching out for fear of doing or saying something which is not appropriate, people just hold back.
Yet literature focuses on how important it is to be there for the person who is struggling and listen with empathy. There is a lot of work on this topic, yet one of my favourite authors is Brene Brown, who speaks powerfully about empathy and how it is key in truly supporting someone who is struggling.
How to prepare yourself for these conversations
Empathy is a skill that can be learned or sharpened and helps us truly engage with the person we have in front of us by trying to let go of our perspective and see the situation from the other’s eyes.
- Adopt a non-judgemental approach
A key component for empathy is trying not to judge the other but embrace someone when they make mistakes, speak with compassion and try to understand the other’s feelings.
- Learn to distinguish what is not yours
In order to understand the other’s feelings we need to be in touch with our feelings and emotions and distinguish what is our story from theirs yet still focus on understanding what the other is feeling.
So far, we have spoken about our internal process when talking to someone who is struggling but the key to this process is communicating our understanding of the other’s feelings. Brown suggests starting by refraining from using the phrase “at least”. In the second part of this blog, we will discuss some helpful tips on how to act in these situations.
You can read the second part here.
If you think that you can benefit from professional support on this issue you can reach out here.
Sonya Galea is a family therapist with Willingness Team. She works with families and couples experiencing couple relationship issues and parenting struggles.
Brown, B. (2008). I thought it was just me (but it isn’t): Telling the truth about perfectionism, inadequacy and power. Avery.
Kohli, S.J. (2021, May 28). How to support a friend or family member who’s struggling with their mental health. Ideas.Ted.com. Retrieved from How to support a friend or family member who’s struggling with their mental health | (ted.com)
Kumar, K. (2021, September 29) How do you help someone who is struggling emotionally? Medicinenet.com. Retrieved from How Do You Help Someone Who Is Struggling Emotionally? 11 Ways (medicinenet.com)
Rischer, B. (2018, August 18). 12 Things to do when someone you love is struggling with mental health. Self Retrieved from12 Things to Do When Someone You Love Is Struggling With Mental Health | SELF
Tartakovsky, M. (2015, June 16). How to help someone Going through depression. Psychcentral. Retrieved from How to Help Someone Going Through a Tough Time (psychcentral.com)