For anyone in a long-term supporting role, it is crucial to find ways to recognise and value what you are doing, rather than seeing only what cannot be achieved. 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 or 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 behaviour. Or they 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 instinct to heal, shield, uplift and make everything ‘alright’ 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 extremely confronting. 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 harder.
The first pattern was when the loving help offered was persistently refused. There can be legitimate reasons for this. Sometimes what is offered seems inappropriate or is perceived to be controlling or intrusive. But the loving bystander then has to deal with feelings of rejection, on top of the concern and pain they already feel. Often situations like those can be dramatically eased with professional help, clarifying what is actually being offered and why. This is especially helpful when hurt seems to be piling upon hurt and no one comprehends what the other one is saying.
The other situation when helplessness seems to feel especially unbearable is when there is a long history for the would-be helper of observing pain and being unable to relieve it, especially when this 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. Perhaps they had a drug or alcohol-addicted family member. Perhaps their family circumstances changed abruptly for the worse. Surviving those experiences may have built their emotional resilience. But in a new situation of helplessness around someone they deeply love (which may appear to 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 or responsibility, it is easy to overlook the pain of inadequacy and even failure and shame that children can and do feel in such situations - and then usually deeply bury. It is often not until decades later, when an adult re-experiences extreme feelings of anxiety and helplessness, as well as distress in the face of someone else’s pain, that it becomes somewhat clearer what has been long buried.
To liken this to post-traumatic stress, with all the pain of past fear and helplessness, may not be going too far in many situations. Understanding that as a real possibility may provide the first glimpse of relief in what’s already a demanding situation. For anyone in a long-term supporting role, it is crucial to find ways to recognise and value what they are actually doing, rather than seeing only what cannot be achieved.
This also means taking care of themselves as best they can, especially when their own needs may have come to seem irrelevant. Even without the additional trauma of the kind I have observed, many people in situations of sustained stress need help to disentangle complex emotions as well as the past from the present. And they may need help to learn to receive comfort and support, as well as give it.
Our thanks go to Stephanie Dowrick for providing this article. Stephanie is a best-selling author and social commentator who has practised as a psychotherapist for many years. A New Zealander based in Sydney, Stephanie is the author of many non-fiction books and novels. Download her articles here. Her books can be purchased at retail outlets nationally or see her website for online purchasing options.