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How to Truly Support a Loved One When They’re Struggling

When someone we love is walking through a challenging season, it is human nature to want to come alongside them and offer our best help. But often, supporting a loved one looks different than we expect it to—including navigating the emotional, mental, relational, and physical toll it takes on the “supporter.” And while supporting those we love is a good intention, our “help” can lead to harm if we’re not careful.  

Recently, Onsite team members Mickenzie Vought and Christopher O’Reilly sat down with Tara Booker, one of the Milestones’ adjunct therapists, to dive into this topic: how can we support those navigating trauma?

You can listen to the full conversation in this episode of the Treating Trauma Podcast. 

Throughout the conversation, the three discussed the most effective ways to support loved ones when they’re struggling and outlined four helpful reminders for all of us as we come alongside those we love.   

4 Reminders as You Support Those You Love:

1. You can’t give what you don’t have.

Tara shared an excellent analogy about our tendency to overextend ourselves for the people we love when “supporting” them. (When in fact, it backfires on everyone!)    

She shared, “I think that’s where we get confused and feel uncertain, ‘Where do I stop with what I have to offer?’ Doing your own work first is crucial in knowing what you have to give emotionally. I tell people if you don’t have $1 in your pocket, you can’t give someone more than $1. But emotionally, we like to try to trick ourselves and “do it anyway.” That’s when we get tripped up. When we do this, we don’t show up how we want to, we become irritable, and we lose our patience. It’s important to check in with yourself and honestly answer, ‘What do I have emotionally to give today?'”  

When we’re honest with our capacity, we can show up for the people we love with the right spirit to genuinely support them.   

2.  Boundaries may hurt, but they don’t harm.   

 Boundaries are a hot-button topic these days—but they are more than trending internet fodder; they are an essential part of an emotionally healthy lifestyle.   

Many of us carry around the belief that boundaries are mean, and that if we really love someone, we would do anything for them. But that lack of boundaries harms us and those we are trying to support.  

As Prentis Hemphill once said, “Boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously.”  

They help us determine where we begin and where we end. Boundaries help us keep our support in perspective and offer us an opportunity to support the people we love without losing ourselves in the process. 

3. Supporting someone is empowering; doing it for them is disempowering.   

How often do we take over when we’re trying to help someone?  

In theory, we know that our loved one has to want to get better for themselves, but in practice, it’s hard to let that happen.  

Whether we want to or not, when our loved one is walking through something challenging, we can unknowingly take on responsibility for their health and healing. But truth is, we can’t do it for them.  

Tara shared, “Supporting someone is empowering. Doing it for them is disempowering.” When trying to decide if you are empowering or enabling, try asking these questions: (1) Does this feel like I’m empowering that person to learn to live their life well? Or (2) do I feel like I’m disempowering that they are capable of living their life by doing it for them or taking responsibility for them?’ 

Here are a few tips from Tara about what empowering support can look like: 

  • Help your loved one look up resources 
  • Sit with them while they call a therapist 
  • Attend a 12-step meeting with them 

 Two of the best things you can “offer” is your presence and your confidence that they are capable of choosing (and taking action towards) their own health and healing.  

 4. Take care of yourself.   

When someone in our life is hurting, it can feel selfish to take care of our own needs. We can fall into the trap of comparative suffering and pour ourselves out for the other person at the expense of our own health.  

Tara shared,”If I was answering the question, ‘How do we support a loved one experiencing trauma?’ I would say: ‘Take care of yourself. Do your own work.’ If I pour into myself, I have what I need to offer to the people around me. Taking care of oneself is taking care of the relationship.” 

Coming alongside the people in our lives, especially when they are struggling from the adverse effects of trauma, can be extremely difficult. We encourage you to find the space and grace to show up for them by showing up for yourself first!  

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Listen to the entire conversation with Tara on Onsite’s Limited Series Podcast Treating Trauma. And make sure to subscribe so you never miss an episode.   

 If you or someone you love is navigating trauma, you don’t have to go it alone. Milestones offers a refuge and a place of healing for when life feels like it’s too much. Learn more here.