“What Can I Do To Help”?

I’ve been a bit absent in the last week, mostly because I’ve had a fairly horrible week and have been simply trying to get through. Because things have been really tough for me, I’ve had a lot of people ask what they can do to help, to make it better. I understand this impulse. I’ve done it enough times myself, usually with the answer “I have no idea!”

My answer to most of the people who have asked me that this week has been “I just need to keep feeling shitty until I stop feeling shitty”. It sounds trite, but for me (and I think for many people) it took an extremely long time before I could feel any sort of satisfaction with answering that way. Things really did warrant sadness and anger this week. My emotions were appropriate to the situation (and the situation wasn’t about to change), so not only can you not do much to change them, it’s actually probably  not a good idea to change them. When emotions make sense for a situation, it’s probably good to feel them, at least for a while.

What does make some sense to do is to try to regulate your emotions. This means keeping the appropriate emotion from dictating your action or taking over your day/life. This means sometimes distracting yourself, sometimes tolerating distressing situations, sometimes practicing mindfulness. These are the things that someone potentially can use help with, but often doesn’t know how to ask for help with because it’s not solving a problem (which is what we tend to think of when we imagine “helping”). Holding on and trying to keep yourself from doing anything stupid while you’re feeling overwhelming emotions isn’t generally thought of as a partnered activity.

A big part of feeling shitty until it stops feeling shitty is not doing anything to make the situation worse. Existing with painful emotions is actually a skill and a difficult one to learn. But if you want to help someone learn it, what you can do instead of asking how you can help is suggest concrete things that allow someone to tolerate distress. These are things like distraction (do you want to go to a movie?), a bit of venting/validation (do you just want to talk about it?), help them to soothe themselves (here’s a very soft kitten if you would like to rub it against your face for a while), or encourage them to pick one thing at a time to focus on and work on (you can help with this by engaging in an activity with them and keeping them focused on it while you’re doing it).

Sometimes it helps to even just provide for the little things while they’re trying to regulate their emotions. Cook them a meal, tell them to take a nap while you clean something up, or help them get outside and on a walk. These are the basics that help someone’s body keep functioning (sleep, food, exercise) and will help lower their emotions just a bit.

The biggest problem with asking how you can help is that when someone is in a situation that warrants strong emotions, the appropriate course of action is often to just keep going on autopilot and surviving. Unless you’ve spent a lot of time learning things like DBT skills that give you concrete ways to continue surviving while feeling horrible, the idea of someone helping you exist while feeling a lot doesn’t make any sense.

So instead of asking, sometimes it helps to suggest and see what seems to stick. If you do some research on what it takes to regulate emotions, you can even suggest “skills” without looking like it. Asking someone to a movie seems like just being nice, but in reality you could be helping them temporarily distract from their emotions so as to get some reprieve. Similarly, you can do things that clearly are helping but are actually sneakily incorporating what we know about emotional regulation (getting someone a present of a nicely scented candle as an example. Obviously getting someone a little something to get through their week is trying to help, but focusing on the senses and sensory pleasure can be hugely helpful to regulating emotions).

I love the impulse behind “how can I help”, but hopefully this will help support people to help in an easier way so that the person who is surviving can just keep on keepin’ on until everything hurts a little bit less.



5 thoughts on ““What Can I Do To Help”?

  1. Miri says:

    Great points. It’s rather stressful to be asked “How can I help?” when I very much want to feel better but know there’s no way to make it happen. Then, if I want to be honest (and I usually do), I have to say, “Nothing.” And then people feel bad. And I feel bad for making them feel bad. And so on and so forth.

    Maybe a better way to phrase it is “Please let me know if there’s any way I can help.” Then I can say, “Okay, thank you.” And not worry about ruining anyone’s mood, or worry about it a little less, maybe.

  2. Lux says:

    I do love when people try to help, but sometimes it can make me feel more pressure to try to help them help me. I spend the overwhelming majority of my time working on my emotions, trying to figure out where they’re coming from or if they’re proportionate and thinking of what I can do to improve the situation. Then somebody asks how they can help and I want to give them something to do but also the majority of the work being done is just in my head.

    Though I’ve been told that I need to get “out of my head” so maybe that’s part of the problem :p

  3. Kathleen W. says:

    Good suggestions. I ask what can I do or what would you like from me because that’s what facilitators train one to do in support groups. Friends and family members very frequently ask what they can do when the person they love is obviously struggling. It would be great if the facilitators had concrete suggestions like those you’ve offered here.
    One other thought. I find that strong emotions seem to intimidate other people. Take grief, for example. When a death occurs, people are unbelievably kind. But only for a fairly brief period. Couple of weeks, tops. Then you’re expected to hardy up and move on. In fact, of course, you need to feel shitty until you’re done. Society doesn’t seem to have space for such powerful feelings, however, so the feelings go underground. I applaud the approach that allows a person to take the time to actually experience the whole feeling.

    • oj27 says:

      I actually was just thinking about grief in relation to the idea of letting people feel their emotions. A lot of the things I suggested are the types of things that people do naturally when someone else is grieving (for a short period like you say). Cooking meals, taking care of the kids, doing little things to help the other person just keep going.
      I think we have a good model for grief that needs to get extended in a lot of other ways (both in time and to different emotions). People kind of get that you can’t fix grief, you just have to make the rest of life as easy as possible for the person.

      One of the hard things about offering concrete suggestions is that people have such varied needs, so I do get why facilitators don’t tell you what to do, but I think it could be helpful to give a list of possible “helping” style activities that you can suggest or try and then feel out what’s effective or not (if asking isn’t working).

  4. […] “What Can I Do To Help”? […]

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