How to ask for emotional support without ruining your relationships
I’ve always been a “friend-group therapist.” Even as my social network has morphed over time, the one constant is that for better or for worse, people seem to come to me for help with their struggles more often than they go to others. It’s been that way ever since I was in grade school, when my crush looked to me for advice about whether or not he should tell HIS crush that he was really into her (ouch).
I’ve come a long way since then; I’ve volunteered at a suicide hotline for almost two years as of writing this, I’ve gotten better at setting boundaries (although it’s still something I struggle with, if I’m being honest with myself), and I’ve supported a wide variety of folks going through a host of issues, from friends coping with "adulting woes," to a suicide hotline caller trying to contend with the belief that she was the reincarnation of Lucifer, to someone I met in a Starbucks bathroom whose girlfriend had just minutes prior overdosed on heroine in the stall next to me.
I’ve seen a lot, and I’ve learned what makes me feel most comfortable and able to support someone who’s asking, and what sort of ways of asking for support make me feel uncomfortable or keep me from helping as much as I could. The below is based on my anecdotal experience and has been echoed by other folks in supportive roles, and of course, this may not be true for everyone in every situation. However, these are some solid rules of thumb.
1. Talk about your problems with people who are the least affected by your problems.
Are you stressed that your sister is struggling with mental illness? If your feelings are still raw, try to talk about it with someone other than your sister before you discuss it with her.
Are you annoyed that your roommate keeps leaving dishes in the sink? See if you can find someone to empathize with you who doesn’t share that grungy kitchen with you.
Do you find yourself worrying about your weight? Though it may feel like a natural fit, resist talking to your friend who is in the thick of an eating disorder.
Why? This article covers the concept more in depth, but the CliffsNotes version is that it takes a disproportionate amount of energy for someone to support you through something that they are currently struggling with-- chances are, hearing your problems may bring up feelings for them that they have to manage in conjunction with supporting you through your own feelings. This may result in patchy support for you, or in some cases, resentment for putting them in a tough position.
So when looking for someone to support you, try to find someone who is not currently going through the same thing you are.
If you have trouble finding someone who’s not affected by the same struggles you’re experiencing, it might be a good time to investigate other supports, like calling a suicide hotline (you don’t have to be suicidal to call, and most people I talk to at my hotline just call in for emotional support) or finding a therapist. The National Suicide Prevention Line number is 1-800-273-8255.
2. Ask for permission first.
Once you’ve found someone who has some distance from your problem, ask for their permission to start spilling your feels. DON’T just go up to someone and start venting, even if that’s what you always do and they always seem cool with it.
Even if they are cool with it, getting some buy-in from someone about to do some emotional heavy-lifting is generally a good idea; it allows them to take care of whatever they need to take care of in order to be maximally supportive to you.
You never know what’s going on in their lives; maybe their chipper demeanor is a facade they’re using to hide their disappointment in their partner after a fight, and they really need to have a good cry before they can be there for you.
Maybe they have a work deadline in an hour, and they’ll be happy to chat with you then.
Maybe they are mid-barf after some bad seafood and you should probably find someone else to talk to if you want to talk to someone today.
You can’t ever know if they’re up to support you right now unless you ask first. Don’t inadvertently pressure your friends and loved ones into supporting you when they’re not up for it.
Personally, asking for permission first-thing is a small detail that makes a huge difference in my ability to support someone, because it means that I don’t have to stress out about interrupting someone in the middle of a vulnerable story to inform them that I can’t be there for them right now. I HATE having to do that so much that I’ve often made the mistake of trying to support people even when it’s not a good time for me, and then I do a miserable job.
Other support-type folks have agreed loudly with me on this one. Try making it a practice to ask before you lean on someone for support.
3. Diversify your supportfolio.
You know that putting all your financial eggs in one basket is a bad idea. Well, putting your emotional well-being in the hands of only one other person is just as unwise.
What if that person gets sick? What if they’re busy? What if they’re in the middle of their own crisis? It makes your life volatile, and it puts more responsibility on them than is healthy for a relationship to sustain.
I have NEVER seen someone successfully rely on only one person for their emotional support for an extended period of time; it either fizzles after some time, and/or it leaves both parties miserable.
If this sounds like you, don’t worry-- it’s never too late to diversify your supportfolio. It may feel scary to be open and vulnerable with someone new, but as long as you follow tips one and two, you can know you're doing your part to ensure that anyone you’re reaching out to for support is up for it.
What do you think? What other items are missing from this list? Have you tried any of these when asking others for support? Tell us in the comments!