Let’s Talk About… Supporting Others

By Jeremy Godwin

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Welcome to Let’s Talk About Mental Health, the weekly podcast full of simple ideas for better mental health by Jeremy Godwin. Each episode focuses on practical and simple ideas that you can use to improve and maintain your mental health and wellbeing every day, based on quality research.

This is Episode 79 and this week I’m talking about supporting others. In this episode I’ll cover what healthy support for others looks like, why being mindful about supporting others matters, and how to support other people in a healthy way. So, let’s talk about mental health!

Listen to the podcast episode now in the Spotify player below (or using your preferred podcast service; see below for links) or continue reading for the full transcript.

Find links to other available podcasting services here.

Watch Episode 17 of Let’s Talk About Mental Health TV — in this latest episode I’m looking at habits to stop now if you want better mental health.

Watch it below or visit the channel on YouTube:

This podcast episode was originally released on 16 May, 2021.

Hello and welcome to Episode 79, and thanks so much for joining me!

This week is all about supporting others. We all have people in our lives who we may find ourselves providing support to from time to time, in one form or another, and often it’s a fundamental part of our close relationships. But as with all things, providing support in a healthy way requires balance — I talk a lot about doing no harm, being kind and giving more than you take, and part of that involves ensuring that you’re not giving so much that the relationship becomes one-sided, because that is when you wind up doing harm to yourself. It’s a fine line and it becomes even more complicated when you yourself are dealing with challenges like anxiety or depression, because that is when you need to be extra-careful to ensure that you’re taking care of yourself. So there are lots of different things to consider about supporting others in a healthy way, and I’ll be exploring that this week.

First, two quick updates. I have new episodes out now on my two YouTube channels. On Let’s Talk About Mental Health TV I’m looking at habits to stop now if you want better mental health, and on No-Nonsense Advice for Living I’m looking at why you are totally responsible for what happens in your life and not anybody else (and why that’s a good thing!). You can find them both on YouTube or head to letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au and watch them now. You’ll also find the links in the episode description on whatever podcast service you’re currently listening to me on.

The other update is that I now have just two coaching slots left if you’re interested in working together one on one. My approach is a combination of counselling and coaching, and so if you’re interested in having a regular session with me that’s like one of these podcasts tailored to your specific circumstances, then head over to letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/coaching for information and to register your interest. I’ll shortly be closing this off for a few months so if you’re interested, get in now as I only work with a handful of clients at a time.

So, with all of that covered, on with this week’s episode about supporting others… 

Introduction

In 1987, an American band called Club Nouveau released a cover version of Lean On Me, a song made famous in the 70’s by its writer, Bill Withers. Now I’m sharing the 80’s version here primarily because I love an upbeat 1980’s bop, but regardless of which version you like this song is all about supporting others, especially in the chorus (which I’m going to quote now — do not worry, I won’t sing at you!):

Lean on me, when you're not strong 
And I'll be your friend, I’ll help you carry on 
For it won't be long, till I'm gonna need 
Somebody to lean on

Many of our closest relationships involve supporting one another and a healthy dose of give and take, which is a concept I talk about a lot (along with doing no harm and being kind). While giving more than you take is definitely kindness in action, giving too much is potentially harmful because it can take too much from you as well as taking away the other person’s responsibility for themselves. As you can probably already tell, what I’m talking about here is a tricky balancing act where we need to know what the line is between giving enough of the right type of support versus anything else that might be unhealthy, either for you or the other person (or both).

So let’s talk about…

What is healthy support for others?

While the term ‘support’ generally refers to giving assistance and helping people (which sounds great), we also need to consider that the word ‘support’ in many contexts refers to something that holds up a structure, and the challenge when we are supporting another person is to ensure that we’re not the ones having to do all the heavy lifting and do all of the ‘holding up’ of that other person. Which is a roundabout way of saying that when we support someone else, the last thing we want (or need) to have happen is that somehow the responsibility for fixing all of their problems lands on us, because there’s a very big difference between being codependent versus being independent. 

Healthy support is about providing understanding and empathy, rather than taking on another person’s challenges and difficulties as if they were your own. Part of that is about setting the other person up for long-term success (because if you try to solve their problems for them then they will likely never learn how to be strong and independent on their own; it’s a challenge I’m sure many of us have faced in our relationships… parents, I’m sure you have faced it if and when your children have run into difficulties in life). The other part of that is about ensuring that you have healthy boundaries and are not being taken advantage of. I’ve said time and time again in this show that I am a realistic optimist (and I dedicated Episode 47 to talking about optimism) and the piece there is about believing that most people have good intentions in life however not everybody does, so it’s essential to have boundaries and be assertive (topics I discussed in Episode 53 and Episode 45 respectively). 

Which leads me to the next part of this episode…

Why does having a mindful approach to supporting others matter?

I think it’s fair to say that most of us want to be supportive for those who are closest to us in our lives — your partner, your kids if you have them, your family, your close friends and even potentially some of your co-workers or neighbours or other people who you’re closely connected to. But the fact is that you only have so much emotional energy available to you at any given time, and this can be affected by what’s going on in your own life, and so if you give too much then you may find yourself depleting your reserves which may then lead to issues for you later on. Everything in life is about balance — give too little and people might consider you to be uncaring, give too much and people may see you as being someone to fix all of their problems. 

I go through this when working with clients in my coaching work, because I combine counselling in with my coaching and so when I’m working with clients I have to ensure I’m maintaining a professional line where my role is to provide guidance rather than spell out all of the answers (because what might work for me may not necessarily work for you, since we’re all unique). 

‘Mindful’ support means being aware of this constant balancing act of giving without giving too much or too little, and ensuring that you set and maintain very clear boundaries (and shortly I’ll talk through how to do that). 

Supporting other people is something that can happen in many different ways — physically, mentally, spiritually, socially, emotionally and financially — and each comes with its own set of challenges that you need to navigate. For example, if you’re supporting someone financially, where is the line drawn before ‘support’ becomes ‘dependence’? Or in terms of emotional support, what is the line between being there for someone versus taking on all their emotional baggage and being the person they turn to to fight their battles for them or to resolve their issues for them? How do we know the difference between ‘supporting’ and ‘enabling’, especially when we’re talking about enabling in terms of unhealthy habits like addictions or unsafe behaviours. It’s a really broad conversation and every single situation and relationship is different, but it’s something I want you to be thoughtful about as we consider this conversation about supporting others — if the support you’re providing is unhealthy, it’s going to cause issues for you and for the other person in the long term.  

These are challenges that many of us have to deal with in our lives and of course it becomes even more complex when you yourself have challenges with your mental health, such as anxiety or depression. When we’re dealing with our own issues we might find ourselves struggling to maintain our boundaries or we may lack the emotional energy to be there for someone else. If that’s the case, it’s OK. I know we probably want to always be there for the people we care about, but sometimes you just can’t (or maybe you can a little but not as much as what is being asked of you). This stuff is hard and saying ‘no’ is rarely easy when it comes to someone we love asking us for assistance, but the fact of the matter is that you can only give what you can give, and if your tank is low then you need to be very mindful about what you give. I know this is a cliché but it’s like on the plane when they tell you that if there’s an emergency you need to put your own oxygen mask on first before you can help others. You know why? Because there’s no point trying to help others if you can’t breathe, because you will pass out — hey, you might be strong, but nobody is so strong that they can survive without oxygen for too long! 

So how do you do all of that? How do you support other people in a healthy and balanced way? Well, let’s get into the how-to part of this week’s episode…

How to support other people in a healthy way

OK, so I’m going to begin with some general guidelines to consider about supporting others (no matter who they are) and then I’ll look at some specific actions you can take that are supportive in a healthy way.

So the first general guideline to keep in mind is that healthy support is about give and take — and what I mean by that is that a healthy relationship is a two-way street, so there’s an expectation that you receive kindness and support back. Now I’m not saying that it’s a tit-for-tat, as in “well I’ll only support you if you support me!” because that’s just childish, but love and kindness has to be reciprocal in general. If you’re friends with someone and you’re constantly giving but not getting anything in return, something has to change. I’ve said in previous episodes that I have walked away from friendships because 95% of the time it’s me who is the one to reach out and check in, and I’ve had situations where when we do see each other that person just talks about themselves the whole time. I walked away from a catch-up with someone a while ago and got in my car then realised that they hadn’t even asked me how I was at the start of the conversation, let alone taken any interest in my life whatsoever! So that’s my point: if you find yourself being treated as some type of support dispensing machine then you need to stop and think about what’s going on, because if you let that continue then you’re doing harm to yourself. I had someone in my life who only ever contacted me when they wanted money, and it got to the point where I honestly felt like an ATM and I just had to make it stop. Do not let yourself be treated like shit. Which leads to my next point… 

Set and maintain clear boundaries — and this really is a continuation of not allowing yourself to be taken advantage of. Healthy boundaries in terms of supporting others are essential, because it’s about deciding on what you’re willing to support with versus what is not appropriate, and then sticking to those boundaries (and as I mentioned earlier, I talked about boundaries at length in Episode 53). Can I just say here that boundaries aren’t about putting conditions on your love (because that’s unkind) but instead it’s about being clear on what you will or won’t accept in terms of doing no harm, being kind and giving more than you take.

If someone takes from you repeatedly or begs for support (especially early into a relationship or friendship) then alarm bells should be going off; pay attention to them — have you ever had a situation where you know someone is trouble but you ignore your gut and go along with things, even when alarm bells are going off repeatedly in your mind? Do not ever ignore the alarm bells — heed them. If need be, put some distance between you and the other person for a little while; the last thing you want or need is to be dragged into another person’s drama. Drama is the opposite of good mental health, so avoid it like the plague!

Remember, you are not responsible for what another human being does or does not do — your partner, your siblings, your parents… you are not responsible for ensuring they navigate their way through life unharmed; only they can live their life. I know that’s hard to hear, especially if you can see the person doing harm to themselves or to others, but it’s not your journey — it’s theirs. So when you’re supporting someone, remember that the choices they make are theirs to make. It’s a fact of life that you have no control over what someone else does or does not do, so accepting that fact is essential if you want to ensure you have some peace of mind (especially if you try to support someone but it doesn’t help). Speaking of, the next general piece of advice is for directly for those of you listening who are parents and then I’ll get into some specific advice for everybody. 

So, parents: if you have kids your responsibility is about setting them up for success — and so the piece here is that it does not mean your role involves solving all of their problems for them. Why? Because you are making their future life a thousand times more difficult than it needs to be. Problems are a part of life for everyone and I know you probably want to protect them, but you make things worse if you try to resolve everything for them… maybe you’ve heard of the term ‘lawnmower parents’ which describes the type of parent who tries to mow down any obstacles in the path of their children to make life easier. Problem is, if you keep on doing that then they’re going to wind up in their 30’s/40’s/50’s still living at home and without basic coping skills every time they hit a small problem in life (which they inevitably will, because life is full of challenges)… and I hate to break it to you but you’re not always going to be around to fight their battles for them (or maybe you will, but do you want to be 85 and still sorting out all the little issues that your kids have?!). Instead, choose to set them up for success by being a sounding board and a guide, rather than taking ownership of their problems. The same thing applies for partners, relatives, friends — all of it.

So now let’s talk about some specific healthy ways you can do all of that, starting with:

  • Be there for the people you care about — and this means that you show up in some form, either physically (like in-person when it’s safe to do so), by phone or video call, and (to a lesser extent) by text message or whatever. I’ll come back to that in a moment, but when I say that ‘you show up’ what I mean here is as well as being there physically it’s about being present mentally and emotionally (rather than it just being a one-sided type of conversation). I say ‘to a lesser extent’ for messages because text-based communication is no substitution for a real conversation, so make like it’s 1998 and pick up the phone to talk about how they’re doing (maybe just be considerate and pre-book a call so they’re prepared, because I don’t know too many people who just answer their phone randomly these days like some kind of Neanderthal!)
  • Ask open-ended questions — so instead of asking ‘Is there anything I can do?’ (which gets either a yes or a no response), ask questions like ‘What can I do?’ or ‘How can I support you?’. These open questions invite conversation and discussion, and an opportunity for you to take the ‘be there for them’ bit of advice further by finding specific ways that they might need you to be there for them (again, remembering to set and maintain healthy boundaries).
  • Listen — sometimes people just need to be heard, so listen. That means giving them your full attention (put your phone away or turn the TV off!) and not adding your opinion or sharing similar stories (because there’s a big difference between empathising and turning the attention back to you), and even if the person is going through something similar to what you have dealt with please remember that we are all unique and no two situations will ever be identical, so how you experience challenges will not be identical to how others do. Just listen and be a shoulder to cry on if necessary.
  • Empathy versus sympathy — ‘empathy’ is about understanding someone’s feelings whereas ‘sympathy’ involves pity or sadness for the person and their plight. Sympathy can feel patronising and also it often involves taking on too much of the emotional side of whatever the person is dealing with, something that goes really into unhealthy support territory. 
  • Understand that the person is going through something and let them feel what they need to feel — if raw emotions come out, let them come out without intervention. I know it’s uncomfortable for some people to just sit quietly when someone is sobbing in front of them (and maybe I’m weird because it’s something that I don’t have a problem with, and I’m fine to sit quietly while the person experiences whatever emotions they need to experience). Tears are an excellent physical release and if you’re feeling really uncomfortable, remind yourself that you’re choosing to be supportive and kind by not rushing them through a necessary emotional moment. 
  • Practice non-judgement — which is basically a nice way of saying, “don’t be an arsehole”. We each have our own values and beliefs in life and so your experience is going to be different to mine, and so on. So when you’re being supportive towards another, bear this in mind and don’t judge if their life choices or approaches are different to yours. The only values to factor in to how you approach the situation really are just to do no harm, be kind and give more than you take — for everything else, if the person isn’t harming anyone then let them be.
  • It’s OK not to have all the answers — you don’t need to be an expert and frankly it’s pretty unlikely you are anyway! Learn to be OK with saying that you don’t know and instead offer to point them in the right direction or walk side-by-side with them as they find the answers they need.
  • Learn — the other piece here is that if you don’t have all the answers you can certainly learn what the person is experiencing. You do that by asking questions, remaining open-minded and seeking out information from relevant sources (like support groups etc).
  • Check in with the person regularly — if someone is really struggling, make a point to check in with them every few days or every week so that they know you’re there for them beyond that initial support conversation as well.
  • Provide low-pressure support — there are lots of different ways to do this that are low-pressure and healthy, such as: take them out for coffee/tea, catch up in person or via video call (make it a low-key catch-up), watch a TV show or movie together (even if it’s online from seperate locations), send them a bunch of memes that made you laugh (especially if it’s around a common interest), drop over a care basket (please just don’t do an unannounced drop-in because very few people will be grateful for you turning up on their doorstep with no notice, especially if they’re going through something!), go for a walk together every week, run some errands for them, offer to do something to give them some time or space to themselves (like minding the kids if they’re a parent), give them a hug… there are thousands of healthy things you can do which serve to support the person and show them how much you care, and generally when any of us are going through a tough time we just want to know and feel that we have people who truly care about us.   

Summary and Close-Out

Because when it comes to supporting others and mental health, what it all boils down to is this: An important part of this life is about the relationships we have with the people we care about most, and sometimes they need our support. Healthy relationships are ones that are not one-sided and so it’s important to consider that if and when you’re going into support mode: give your kindness and support, but also ensure that you are setting clear boundaries for yourself in order to maintain a healthy relationship that is independent rather than codependent. Each of us are responsible for our own lives and the choices we make, and so when you’re supporting someone else it’s about ensuring that you’re giving them support without absolving them of responsibility and accountability.

The choice is yours, as it is with all things related to your wellbeing… so, what choice will YOU make today? 

Each week I like to finish up by sharing a quote about the week’s topic, and I encourage you to take a few moments to really reflect on it and consider what it means to you. This week’s quote is by American writer Loretta Girzatis, and it is:

“If someone listens, or stretches out a hand, or whispers a word of encouragement… extraordinary things begin to happen.”

Loretta Girzatis 

Next week I’ll be talking about self forgiveness. I talked about forgiveness back in Episode 44 and a lot of that was about your relationships with others, so much so that I thought it would be ideal to turn the focus inwards and look at forgiving yourself. It’s a topic that can be quite challenging and confronting for many, especially when we start talking about the kind of hurt and pain that we carry around for years, but there is a point at which we need to let go and forgive ourselves for the things we’ve done (or not done) in the past. So next week I’ll be talking about what self forgiveness is, why it matters, and how to forgive yourself.

I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released on Sunday 23rd May. And join me for Let’s Talk About Mental Health TV on YouTube, with new episodes released every Wednesday, along with weekly episodes of No-Nonsense Advice for Living every Saturday on my other YouTube channel [or visit www.jeremygodwin.com.au]. 

Head over to letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au for links and all past episodes and, while you’re there, join the mailing list for exclusive updates, my weekly newsletter and the transcript and audio links for all episodes. You can find the website links in the description of this episode on whatever podcast service you’re using.

You can also find Let’s Talk About Mental Health on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest as @ltamentalhealth, where I post extra content daily.

Thank you very much for joining me today — look after yourself and make a conscious effort to share positivity and kindness in the world, because you get back what you put out. Take care and talk to you next time.

Jeremy 🙂

Did you like what you just read? Then please share this with someone who might appreciate it, like a friend, family member, or coworkerbecause word of mouth helps other people to find Let’s Talk About Mental Health! Thank you 🙂

Let’s Talk About Mental Health.
Simple ideas for better mental health.

Let’s Talk About Mental Health. © 2021 Jeremy Godwin.

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