We all have known someone on a figurative sinking ship (or boat) whose inability to save themselves threatened to take us down with them if we jumped aboard. We consider ourselves being empathetic when we identify with someone else’s pain. Simply commenting, “I know how you feel,” is seldom enough to keep someone afloat. So how can we help someone in chronic distress?

The short answer is to realize that you cannot magically cure another person’s pain! The person experiencing pain is the only one who can do the healing work! Others such as friends, family members, co-workers, and therapists can offer suggestions, but they can’t delete the pain…no matter how long they listen and listen and listen to countless stories of the distressful event. Empathy has no momentum. The following tips can keep you from being lured onto a sinking boat. Even better, they can teach you how to help the person aboard to plug their hole!

Suggest difference. The hardest part of helping someone we care about is to offer a different viewpoint. Being agreeable causes much less emotional friction. However, difference is exactly what someone with a hole in their boat needs. Think about icy steps in the winter. An effective way to treat to the slippery surface is by applying friction-creating substances like salt or sand. The roughness prevents slipping allowing the person to regain balance.

Refer to professionals. A woman who smoked cigarettes for 45 years asked her daughter for help to stop. The daughter, a non-smoker, had no idea what was required to quit. The mother insisted that she needed the daughter’s help to succeed. Recognizing her mother’s apprehension the daughter suggested that they research a smoking cessation program together. The mother liked that idea because she felt supported without feeling inadequate or judged. This segues into our next tip.

Be nonjudgmental. Whatever reason a person has for having a hole in their boat, it is likely no fun for them either. Acknowledge that they have strengths. One way is by reminding them that they have resolved challenging issues before. For example, a man who had attended a support group for parenting was reluctant to attend a grief support group, years later, after the death of his wife. The man contacted the facilitator somewhat embarrassed that he was in again in need of a group. The facilitator reminded him that he successfully evolved into a confident parent as a result of his participation in the parenting group. The facilitator conveyed confidence in the man’s ability to work through his pain as he had done previously.

Offer encouragement. Frequently what people need to be rescued, is for someone significant to have confidence in them. We refer to these people as our cheerleaders, the ones standing on the sidelines shouting, “You can do it! You’re almost there! Way to go! During this COVID-19 quarantine, football games are no longer played to capacity crowds. In order keep players hyped up, attempts are made to keep things as normal as possible by allowing a few spectators and piping in recorded crowd cheers. 

The best way not to jump into the boat with the person who is drowning is to realize that you can’t do the work to save them. Only they can save themselves. You can choose to help them by employing our four tips: suggesting difference; referring to professionals; being nonjudgmental; offering encouragement. We are confident that you can think of others…just don’t get on that boat without rescue tips!

Frances Goddard, LCSW, BCD
Diane Harvey, LCSW