Direct suffering takes a huge toll on many people’s lives. But often the people supporting those who are suffering are also under considerable stress.
,”It may be that your loved one has a chronic illness; a disability that can only worsen. Perhaps your loved one has lost a job and can’t find another; has been treated unfairly, deserted emotionally, or is struggling to find work, love or meaning. It could also be that they seem almost wilfully to be causing harm through their own addictive behaviours. Or can’t leave a relationship that is undermining or dangerous.
There’s no point comparing levels of suffering in these common scenarios but it can certainly be overwhelming for a loving bystander to feel useless in the face of real and sustained pain. The desire or instinct to heal, shield, uplift and make everything “”all right”” for the people we love is as healthy as it is powerful. It’s what allows us to transcend selfishness and self-interest. It can fuel astounding levels of devotion and care. But when it seems impossible to help effectively, the pain of that can be intense.
Helplessness is always uncomfortable. When it meets and mocks that instinct to save our loved ones, it can feel unbearable. In my years of working therapeutically with people I noticed two patterns that seemed to make this kind of situation even worse. The first was when the loving help offered was persistently refused. There may be legitimate reasons for this. Sometimes what was offered was inappropriate or was perceived to be controlling or overwhelming. But the loving bystander then has to deal with feelings of rejection, on top of the concern and pain they already feel. Often those situations can be eased with professional help, clarifying what is actually being offered and why, especially when hurt seems to be piling upon hurt and no one comprehends what the other one is saying.
The other situation when helplessness can feel unbearable is when there is a history for the would-be helper of observing pain and being unable to relieve it that stretches back to childhood. A surprising number of people come into this category. Perhaps they had a parent or sibling who had a serious illness or died young. Perhaps they had a drug or alcohol-addicted family member. Perhaps their family circumstances changed abruptly for the worse. Surviving that can build their emotional resilience. But in a new situation of helplessness around someone they deeply love – which may be quite a different situation superficially – the intensity of childhood helplessness can certainly return.
It is easy, as adults, to ignore how children can simultaneously feel dependent on their caretakers and responsible for what’s going on around them. Because it is so clear to the adults that whatever is happening is not the child’s fault, it is tempting to overlook the pain of inadequacy and even failure and shame that children can and do feel – and then usually bury. It is often not until decades later when, along with the familiar helplessness an adult also blames themselves for the anxiety or distress they feel in the face of someone else’s pain, it becomes somewhat clearer what has been long buried. To liken this to post-traumatic stress may not be going too far in some situations. So understanding that possibility may provide the first glimpses of relief in what’s already a demanding and painful situation.
For any of us, doing what we can, taking care of ourselves as best we can, accepting the limitations of what we can achieve, valuing rather than disparaging whatever help we can give: these are healthy responses to prolonged emotional stress, whether first- or second-hand. Sometimes we need help also to disentangle complex emotions as well as the past from the present. Helping and supporting others may mean we have to learn more effective ways to help and support ourselves.
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