Last year I was dealing with a break-up and a medical issue simultaneously. I was in serious need of emotional support. I could have used some old fashioned “caring” as well, but even TLC was in short supply at the time. In fact, both emotional support and caring were difficult to come by — are difficult to come by. And I think that’s true for many of us.
I was scared, depleted, and demoralized. In free fall. Dropping down a well I thought, I hoped, I had finally climbed out of.
I felt alone, in the dark.
I longed for a shoulder to lean on, a voice to cheer me on, some mechanism to help me maintain perspective; someone who knew me, valued me, who was in my corner. That’s the very definition of emotional support — the presence of an intimate to remind us there’s light at the end of the tunnel, or in my case, a means to look up from the bottom of that well and see a ladder, a ledge, a way out.
When Times Are Tough… Some Stay, Some Go
Those who ultimately stepped in were not “the usual suspects.” I’m grateful for their reaching out. And here I am, roughly a year later, living through a handful of new challenges, and wondering how any of us manage to put the pieces back together when we feel shattered. I’m trying to suss out who and what assists, how to find support when we’re on our own, and just as important — how to pay it forward.
I ask myself… What is the difference between emotional support and caring? Is the distinction important? Can you provide emotional support to someone you don’t have deep feelings for? Is it reasonable to expect emotional support from those without an intimate connection?
What about caring? Isn’t caring simpler to provide than emotional support? As simple as expressing polite or tender concern? As simple as picking up the phone?
Since most of us need help at some point (and many of us are uncomfortable asking for it), and since most of us would do what we could to help (if we knew what that was), here I am, trying — for myself — to work through these issues. I’m trying to determine what a casual friend might need and how to provide it; what I might need in the future and whether I can reasonably anticipate getting it. I’m grappling with the reality that my current emotional “support network” is minimal and not proximate.
I imagine this is a common problem in my Boomer demographic.
Giving Emotional Support
In my example of last year’s challenges, as much as I needed logistical help (I was bed-ridden), it was the emotional support that I needed more — support to keep looking for medical solutions (which I eventually found), the permission to grieve the end of my relationship, and the freedom to articulate my fears.
I needed a friend I could rely on. One person was there as time allowed; demands on her life frequently kept her out of town.
For five months, I was a mess. Writing didn’t help. Reading wasn’t possible. Nothing seemed to ease the pain. Sleep had deserted. I accepted whatever emotional succor I could get, however uncomfortable I was in taking it — especially when it came from my sons (that’s not their job!), from strangers, or people I didn’t know well.
Complicating the situation, like many women of my generation, I’ve always found giving easier than taking. When someone I know needs me, unless I’m out of commission, I’m there. And even if I’m not at my best, if it all possible, I’m still there. I do what so many of us do quite naturally: listening, touching a hand, making a pot of coffee or a sandwich, allowing tears to flow without judgment.
This is also what a parent does for a child at times. It comes more naturally to some of us, but it comes more readily to all of us than we think it might… with a few how-to’s and a bit of practice.
Whatever You Call It, It’s Not So Hard
Call it TLC. Call it kindness. Fake it if you have to! Offering a little comfort isn’t so hard. Pick a few from this list, and you’ll see what I mean.
- Soothing words
- Physical presence
Not good with verbal reassurance? A hug will do. Not comfortable with that? Sit across the table and share a cup of coffee. Those last two items? They’re a judgment call to be sure, but they can work wonders. We know the physiological benefits that occur from a change in scenery or other distraction, and likewise from laughter.
While it isn’t necessarily our place to make sure a grieving friend is eating or sleeping, we shouldn’t forget to gently remind (or provide) a few basics like food, a few zzzzs, and exercise — if possible. And, professional assistance may advisable. A friend or loved one can only provide so much.
Can You Count on Your Partner for Emotional Support?
Providing emotional support in marriage or a relationship can be trickier than we think. All that triggering “stuff” between two people can clog the machinery of simple kindness. In many ways it’s easier to provide a sturdy and nonjudgmental shoulder to a long-time friend than to your husband or wife or lover. The fears, resentments, and petty jealousies that build over the course of the relationship can intrude. You may chafe at generating the heartfelt support your partner needs, particularly if it’s a recurring problem.
If one of you is suddenly faced with carrying a disproportionately heavy load of responsibility, much as you’d like to keep up the patience, the listening, the reassuring words, your own reserves are strained and emotional support is tougher to generate.
And if you aren’t married or living together, if you’re in a relationship of short duration, maybe you just don’t want to. Then what? And if you take a powder, are you a bad person?
Help, Caring, Kindness
I can imagine providing emotional support to a friend of short tenure, an acquaintance, or even a person who is a virtual stranger. “Virtual” is an important qualifier; don’t we commiserate with and lend a hand to those in our online communities?
Maybe the assist is informational help or a referral, compassion by way of listening, or a few kind words exchanged on chat, text, email or by phone. Realistically, the expectations of an acquaintance or a friend of short duration are different from those of someone who has known you for 10 or 20 years.
So what about a lover or a spouse? What about an ex? Why is it easier for some of us to provide consistent support and caring to friends, whereas we’re more challenged to do the same for the person we live with? Is it a matter of history? A partner who continues to fall off the wagon? What if he or she becomes verbally abusive under stress, compromising your ability to remain supportive? What if you’re just worn out from recurrent care-taking?
What if you are the one in need of help? Are you afraid to ask? Do you know how?
I found this Tiny Buddha post to be an excellent explanation of why we fear asking for help, and how to do so effectively. Among my own recommendations picked up the hard way… know your audience, be clear in your request, be specific, and be gracious no matter what — even if the answer is no.
Sometimes, people care deeply but they can’t express their caring in the ways we need it. Sometimes emotional support — listening, reassuring, being present with us through our pain so we don’t feel abandoned to it — isn’t in their wheelhouse. Haven’t you known individuals who don’t understand helping versus fixing — that we need that shoulder, that hug, that shared silence — not a list of tasks to “fix” our lives?
I wonder if it’s easier to be supportive when you’re less invested — not a couple, not living together, not married. Then, you don’t feel your own world In sight of the fault line, the ground shaky, your life on the edge of a precipice.
Love? It’s pretty fabulous when everything is going well.
But as months turn into years or when challenging circumstances present, some of us are not equipped to support each other as we might like. Some of us struggle with finding the right words, the right touch, the right act of reassurance — even with a person we cherish.
You Can’t Choose Your Family, But…
Reminded by what I went through last year as well as more recent bumps in the road, I’m keenly aware of character issues in the people who are in (and out of) my life. Character plays an enormous part in standing by those we love… or not. But I also recognize that we each possess varying degrees of tolerance for toughing it out through hard times, much less extending gestures of sympathy to others.
My musing leads me to this. There are circumstances in which caring for an acquaintance is easier than providing emotional support to a loved one. Expectations are lighter, words and behaviors are received (and expressed) differently, and baggage is less likely to play a role. As for a spouse or significant other, expectations are greater, and disappointment or hurt more likely when we don’t “get as good as we give” — or so we think.
All the more reason to pay it forward whenever and wherever we can.
As for which is more essential in a pinch — emotional support or caring — I find emotional support to be more nourishing, going to the heart of our sense of self-worth and fighting the isolation we feel when we’re struggling. I admit, I expect it from a loved one as I give it myself. From a stranger, I find it uncomfortable.
Caring, on the other hand, can be powerfully helpful in almost any scenario. We should never discount the gift of a kind word, a sympathetic smile, or shared laughter.
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