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When the Support Person Needs Support

Megan Ragan

If you’re anything like me, you are probably familiar with providing emotional support to some of the people in your life. It may be a friend, a spouse, a parent, or sometimes even a teacher that somehow, someway, you find yourself in the role of helper. This isn’t always a bad thing—- in fact, it is one of my most favorite things and is probably much of the reason I became a social worker and a therapist.

However, what do you do when you find yourself emotionally overwhelmed and you need someone to hold you up?

If you don’t have a clear answer to this question, then this is for you.

I, like so many others, have spent much of my life being “someone’s person.” I understand the impact of being able to talk and connect with someone you trust during times of difficulty, yet I don’t often afford myself the same grace as what I give others. In those times, I know *what* I need to do, but knowing and doing are two very different things. Here’s a thought narrative that may feel familiar to many of you:

  • Rational Brain: Hey, we are feeling really down today. It would be good to talk with someone that gets it.
  • Anxious Brain: Yeah, that would be cool, but we can’t talk to anyone because they all have things going on too. You don’t want to add your stuff to the weight they’re already carrying. They may not be strong enough to handle it all.

Or maybe it’s like this:

  • Vulnerable Brain: I am really struggling right now and I need some help.
  • Protective Brain: If you tell someone that you are struggling, they’re going to think you’re weak and incompetent.

This one is my favorite:

  • Rational Brain: I can’t keep doing this.
  • Scared Brain: If you talk to anyone about this, they’re going to think you’re crazy.

Does this sound familiar? If it does, you may find yourself wondering how you got into this position. You may wonder at what point you stopped following your own advice; and you may believe that it’s too late to change roles in your relationship. You may even occasionally find yourself thinking about reaching out only to change your mind and think that the person you want to talk to can’t handle your struggles. Do you notice the pattern of assumptions being made here?

When we begin down a path of assuming, we fail to give people the chance to do the right thing.

Read that, and then read it again.

As any relationship therapist will tell you, assumptions can often be the nail in the coffin of communication. As humans, we make assumptions based on our prior experiences and generally, we don’t even realize we are doing it. In turn, these assumptions invalidate our own feelings and keep the wheel of isolation and dysfunction turning.

Maybe a parent didn’t give you the emotional support you needed when you went through something difficult as a child—- and now, as an adult, you believe that sharing your struggles places burden on someone else. Maybe you grew up in a home where emotions were signs of weakness, so now you struggle with vulnerability in your relationships. Maybe as a child you were told that you are “dramatic” and “difficult”, and now you believe that your struggles are “too much.”

Whatever the reason, this is a relationship pattern that can be changed. We have to stop assuming that we know how people will react, and give them the chance to prove us wrong. For some, especially those experiencing complex trauma, this can be really difficult because the world and all of the people in it have been historically unsafe. However, please know this: you owe it to yourself to start somewhere.

While this process can look different for everyone, here are some ways to get started that may work for you:

  • You can’t trust everyone, but maybe you can trust someone. Find the closest person in your life and be intentional in starting to trust them with something. Initially, it may not be your deepest struggles but instead something that feels “safe” like a parenting challenge you have or a struggle with a coworker. Once you see that your person can handle what you throw at them, maybe it will feel safer to let them share your struggles.
  • Remind yourself that all healthy relationships require give and take. If you value your relationship with your “safe” person, you need to take almost as much as you give. Doing this increases relationship stability and connectedness and decreases feelings of resentment. Remember that in these relationships, your role is not one of “caregiver” but rather “counterpart.”
  • Start quieting that voice in the back of your head. This one can be really hard because it requires a lot of unlearning and healing of old wounds. We can’t tackle every negative thought at once, but have to start somewhere. Start by picking the thought that is stopping you from sharing your burdens with someone trusted and counter that thought with what you know to be true. For instance, if you have the thought “I can’t talk with Sarah right now because she has her own stuff going on,” counter it with “Sarah is my friend and cares about what I’m going through; she would want me to talk with her.” Then do it, despite the discomfort.

Being human is hard. Being vulnerable is hard. Connecting with people and risking being rejected is hard. But “hard” doesn’t mean “impossible.” It is possible to be a connected, supported, vulnerable human being and still provide support to the people that you love. While this work may feel unnatural and very much like an uphill battle, it is one of the most important things you can do for yourself. Despite what you may believe, you deserve to be supported and the people that love you deserve the opportunity to provide support.

You aren’t too much. Your feelings are valid. Things are hard and you deserve the support that you so freely give others.

Megan Ragan is the Assistant Coordinator for Centerstone’s Trauma, Training and Treatment grant, a project funded by Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. Megan has accrued more than 250 hours of training in the subject of childhood trauma, traumatic stress, and other related subjects. Megan has 10 years’ experience in child-serving systems and graduated with her master’s of social work from Louisiana State University in August 2021. Megan is certified and experienced in multiple therapeutic modalities including Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing, Accelerated Resolution Therapy, Trauma-focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Parent Child Interaction Therapy, Child Parent Psychotherapy, and Managing Adaptive Practices. Megan enjoys working with individuals in a variety of capacities including direct service support, community consultation and training on the subject of trauma, adversity, and resiliency. Megan has had the privilege to speak at multiple conferences including the 2021 Illinois Department of Human Services Evidence-Based Practices Conference; and is a skillful trainer who brings passion and energy to every presentation. Finally, Megan is a long-time Southern Illinois resident who can usually be found at home with her husband, chasing her three young children.

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