When things are really tough for you, do you find yourself thinking of friends and family and kind of grading the emotional support they offer? Do you ever have these kind of thoughts?
Well so and so has not called to see how things are going
It was nice of them to check in but that was last week
They promised to help but then weren’t there when I needed them
They only called to tell me about their problems
It can be hard to admit, even to ourselves, that we judge the emotional support people offer us in this way. No-one wants to feel needy, or ungrateful but when we are feeling really bad it’s all too easy to lose perspective.
Of course, when we are going through hard times we look for emotional support from people we love and trust. We know that being able to express our worries in a supported environment will help us to cope better. The problem comes when we hope for too much. Then we have to deal with the struggle we are going through, as well as our disappointment about the support we receive.
Here’s a few things we can try when we feel ourselves prescribing the emotional support we want from other people.
Don’t expect other people to offer emotional support like you would
Some people are natural carers, with an empathic understanding of what someone might need when they are struggling. This is not true of everyone. Most of us have some friends who are lovely people but pretty tone-deafin terms of reading the emotional needs of others.
If you are a good listener and prepared to go out of your way for a friend in need, maybe it’s going to be a challenge when you are the one wanting emotional support. It’s important to remember that a small gesture from another person might be a big offering for them. Just because you might do more, does not mean that they are not trying to be there for you.
Hoping for things from people blocks the emotional support they are actually offering
One of my closest friends has a demanding job and a complicated personal life. One of her ways of coping is to focus on what goes well for her and taking time out from what stresses her. I know she really cares for me, but I get frustrated when my concerns are part of what she wants to avoid. There is a part of her that just cannot stand it when things are tough for me and so for long periods she does not engage.
I can wish she would SKYPE with me and have a good talk, but I know she won’t. If I get stuck there then I miss the small, frequent, small signs from her that she is thinking of me and wishing me well—the text messages, the FB posts, the cards in the mail.
She has her own way of holding me when I am going through something. If I can relax and accept it for what it is, I can feel her emotional support and benefit from it. If I long for what I think she should be offering it’s a different story.
It’s quite an art to be able to accept the help that people offer on their terms, rather than restyling it into something that you think they should be offering.
We are all caught in our own stories
Although each of us is hard wired for kindness and we value and need social connection, we are also focused on getting what we think we need in order to live the life we want.
We have inherited the oldest part of our brain from our reptilian ancestors.This part of our brain is concerned solely with survival—our fight, flight, or freeze responses; our wish to procreate, and how we deal with danger and fear. Any response we make from this part of our brain is instinctive and automatic. The neocortex is the newest part of our brain and is concerned with reason, imagination, and problem-solving. It’s the seat of social skills and compassionate responses. However, it can be hijackedby the old brain and our instincts can take over from our reason.
However, much we want to act with kindness and consideration, we are subject to the overwhelming power of our basic instinct to preserve ourselves. Although our kindness is hard-wired we need to pay attention to it in order to bring it into action—it needs intention and focus. Our self-interest is instinctive.
So, when we look for emotional support from those close to us, we need to remember that, just like us, they are juggling their genuine wish to help and be of benefit with their deep-seated urge to make sure everything is right for them.
The most reliable emotional support comes from our own ability to care for ourselves.
In my experience the best way to care for myself is to maintain a regular practice of meditation. It’s not just my everyday meditation session but bringing the attitude of meditation into my everyday life.
Here are some of the things I notice that meditation helps me with:
- I find I am less judgemental of myself of and other people, which is incredibly relaxing. It is less difficult to avoid beating myself up when I feel down.
- I am able to trust myself and my own insight more deeply and to see what I need to do in order to work with the challenges I am facing.
- I am less impatient about getting what I think I need right then and there
- Even when I am going through something challenging, I feel a greater sense of patience and acceptance that this is just what is happening now.
- It’s more possible to let go of things I think I need from other people
- I have a greater capacity to be grateful for what comes my way and to appreciate the emotional support people offer me when I need it.
Meditation helps me to become more self-reliant but at the same time to see more clearly how much people really do want to offer emotional support and how that is not always easy to do.
If you are interested to learn more about meditation you might find this online course helpful
How to Make Time for Meditation in a Busy Life
You can find out more here
Using the news to connect with compassion
Recently, I got the chance to hear Karen Armstrongspeak at a symposium on diversity at the Vu University in Amsterdam. I do some work for the Charter for Compassion, which she founded, and I was interested to hear what she had to say.
She spoke about how polarised our world has become and stressed that each of us needed to find a way to do something to change that. She was asked how someone could contribute to this change on a personal level. Armstrong pointed out that when we watch the news, we come across things that upset and worry us. Her suggestion was that we look into that feeling of discomfort and use it to generate compassion. I do that myself sometimes, and it certainly does work.
However, more and more people that I speak with tell me that they have stopped watching the news because it distresses them too much. It got me thinking about a less confrontational way of connecting with compassion, rather than conflict.
What gets in the way of connection?
One of the greatest obstacles to connection is to just see another person as an object—not really human at all. We can do this just ouhttps://www.awarenessinaction.org/why-it-is-important-to-know-how-interconnected-people-are/t of habit, or just not paying attention. The check-out person in our local supermarket, a serving person in a restaurant, or the person driving the tram can all be people we just see as agents to provide what we need at that moment.
It can go much further though. During World War II, U.S. Army Brigadier General S.L.A. Marshall asked infantry soldiers how often they fired their guns in combat. The results were surprising and uplifting—only 15-20% of soldiers actually fired at the enemy.The reluctance to kill is hard-wired into our psyche. Unfortunately, this research led to the U.S. Army working on ways to dehumanise the enemy, so that soldiers felt less connection to the other side as human beings. It worked—by the Vietnam War, 95% of soldiers were firing their weapons but this came at a great cost. Between 18 and 54% of the 2.8 million military personnel who served in Vietnam suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder—far higher than in previous wars.
Creating a habit of connection
I mentioned already that not paying attention can mean that we don’t notice people as people. This is a habit that we can change if we take it on. One of the ways I am experimenting with since Karen Armstrong’s talk is to use my morning routine as a means to reach out to people beyond my immediate circle. As I shower, dress and eat breakfast I try to think of all the people involved in making the things I use available to me. In addition, I try to think of using natural resources well, whether workers are treated fairly, and the carbon footprint of what I am using.
Getting ready for the day
The toiletries we use—shower gel, shampoo, body lotion and make up—are sourced from all over the world.Micais used extensively, especially in make-up, and comes largely from India. However, child labour is often used in the mining of mica, with children not attending to school and working in unsafe conditions for tiny sums of money. There is work going on to try to put this right, but it goes slowly. I try as best as I can to use toiletries that are manufactured ethically but it is not always easy to tell. As I use my shower gel and so on, I try to consider all the people involved in making it—from the people who source the raw materials, to the people who market and well it. It must come to hundreds of people for each product.
A lot of our high street clothing comes from countries such as Bangladesh, India, China, Vietnam, Ethiopia and Indonesia. Certainly, these will all be people living very different lives from my own here in Amsterdam. In some cases, such as garment workers in Bangladesh, they will be struggling with unfair—or even unsafe—working conditions. Many of the workers will be women with homes to look after and children to feed. I don’t want to wear clothing that has been made by workers who are treated badly but, again, it is not easy to tell. A few years back, Primark was targeted for its role in using cheap labour in Bangladesh. Since then it has set up CottonConnect,training camps for women in India to learn more efficient ways of farming cotton. Although it has improved conditions for many cotton farmers, it is still part of the cycle that keeps cotton prices very low.
For breakfast I usually have porridge, with spelt-bread toast and Redbush tea. The oats for my porridge come from Scotland, and the cranberries I sprinkle over it are from the USA. Spelt is harvested in Germany and Belgium. Redbush tea comes from South Africa.
All these people help me to start my day
So, by showering, dressing and eating breakfast I am connecting with hundreds of people in Asia, Africa, and Europe. Mostly I direct my attention to the people who source and make the items that I use. I try to see them at their work and going about their lives. It’s unlikely that we will ever meet but we are connected through my using the product of their work.
We could go much further—the people working on packaging, transport, marketing and selling. Then there are all their families who depend on their work and the friends they hang out with.
Sometimes people say to me, ‘Well, it’s their job!’ That is true but who says I can’t feel gratitude and appreciation for the care and hard work of others? Most importantly, it helps me to remember that I live in an inter-connected world, relying on the effort and kindness of many people through each step of my day. We might lead different lives, but we are the same in that we want to be happy, to take care of our families and make our way in the world in peace.