Loving someone can sometimes include loving them when they aren’t doing well. It is in these moments that we can find ourselves asking how we can best show our love while supporting the people we care about. As I’ve worked in the mental health field, there is one question I find commonly thought but rarely uttered by family members or partners: How can I better love someone who suffers from anxiety or depression?
First, we need to acknowledge that it can be really tough to be around someone who is suffering, no matter how much you love them, and no matter how justifiable their complaints are. A lot of times, partners and family members of people with mental illness feel guilty at being bothered by their loved ones’ suffering. They can find themselves thinking "if only I wasn't such a bad person, I wouldn’t think about myself while this person I love is suffering so much".
There is a phenomenon that exists when dealing with the suffering of other people known as vicarious trauma. Vicarious trauma is what happens when a person hears the story of suffering from someone else and internalizes that suffering, making it their own. This vicarious trauma can impact a person such that the story they've heard draws out traumatic suffering in themselves. When trying to support a loved one, this kind of trauma can quickly show its head and affect you if you aren’t aware of what to look for and how to safe guard against it.
The existence of vicarious trauma leads us to our second point to remember – It is important to build up strong supports for yourself so that you can support your loved one without unintentionally giving too much of yourself. Think of this like the oxygen masks that drop down in airplanes during emergencies. You’re always instructed to place the mask on your own face before placing it on those who can’t do it themselves. They do this because it keeps YOU safe so that you can keep other people safe. There is nothing morally wrong about setting aside ways to replenish yourself, be it through sports, a standing and recurring lunch date with a friend, music, video games, art, or anything else. Having these things locked in place gives you room to support others from a place of strength.
Third, sometimes it’s okay to say no when someone asks for help. You don’t owe it to anyone to wear yourself out in the name of supporting someone else. If you find yourself tired at the end of a day and you are being called upon to help someone else, realistically examine your ability to accomplish what needs to be done and your ability to do it with the necessary attitude. If you can’t say in full honesty that you can provide the kind of support they need from you, tell them so. Forcing yourself to always say yes opens the door to resentment for your loved one, and resentment won’t help anyone.
Fourth, once your own supports are in place, work on supporting your loved one without taking responsibility for their feelings. What they feel is theirs, and you are not responsible for those feelings. Supporting someone means just that – support them. Give them a place to stand when they feel like they don’t have one. Let them tell you what they are thinking and feeling and give them encouragement that you love them regardless of how they feel. It is important to remember that you don’t need to understand why they feel what they do so much as it is for you to love them as they struggle to understand for themselves.
Fifth, encourage them to get help outside of you. This one can be tough, because sometimes it can feel like you’re failing your loved one by not being able to provide them with everything they need. This is based on the fallacy that you alone are everything that your loved one needs. Additionally, don’t be afraid to reach out for help for yourself. It is a heavy burden to care for someone all of the time, and it’s okay to ask for help.
Loving someone who is struggling isn’t always easy, but it’s always worth making the effort. Your loved one may not be able to express it all the time, but they are grateful for it. Make sure to take care of yourself as you take care of others, and you’ll find that you are stronger than you realize.