Question from a reader:
“As someone who has been through an abusive relationship and now offers counseling words to others facing the same issue, I have a question: how do you do it? I have a friend in an abusive relationship who comes to me for counsel; it’s triggering me and it’s wearying to me. How do you remain strong for all of us but take care of yourself at the same time? How do you be a caretaker when you’re still a little broken?”
This is such an excellent and important question. Because life does not stop for everyone else when we go through a crisis, there will be times when our sad seasons will overlap with our friends’ or family members’ or children’s rough patches, and so a great skill to cultivate is learning how to take care of ourselves and others simultaneously.
So I have three tips for you.
Get filled up. If you are in a situation where you are counseling or walking someone through a difficult life circumstance, it can be draining even for people whose lives are going just fine. Add the dynamic, though, of you trying to get through your own thing, and it can be a recipe for disaster if you’re not careful.
So, I would make sure that you are in counseling, in a support group, in a small group, have a mentor, and/or have a friend that is there to listen to you.
Know your limitations. When I was in college, I decided to apply to be an RA. I wasn’t immediately accepted and I think I know why. I recall describing to the interviewing team that a friend had come to me for help, how I prayed and fasted and it was almost all I could think about. In other words, I took on his problem almost as if it were mine. In other, other words, I wasn’t simply compassionate or even empathetic, I had crossed over to codependent and unhealthy. They probably – and rightly so – saw that as a potential red flag.
So if you are taking on your friend’s pain, and you can’t sleep, or it’s all you’re thinking about, that might be a warning that you’re in too deep, because as my mentor so wisely puts it, “I’m not in her scene”. Meaning, it’s not your problem to live through or solve or carry; it’s hers. It also might be – unintentionally – that you are allowing her problem to replace yours for a bit of an emotional break. We all need breathers in the middle of our pain, but when all we’re doing is transferring our obsessions from our problems to someone else’s problems, we need to take that as a sign that something’s not right. And then we need to make sure we are truly working through our own issues.
Know when to say no. Or not now. Or, I love you but I just can’t help you anymore. If you are going through a divorce, and your friend is going through a divorce, you can, of course, commiserate. You can, of course, go to the movies together. You can, of course, both cry it out. But you shouldn’t be her dumping grounds while you sit there in silence for months. There truly are times when you need to take time for yourself to grieve and get stronger and heal. You really can press pause on serving at church, or from leading your small group, or from mentoring one-on-one for a time while you get your emotional head above water. I don’t think for a second that when Jesus said, “come to me, all you who are weary and burdened…”, it was so he would give us a pep talk to suck it up and keep kicking Kingdom butt. The verse goes on to say that Jesus says, “…and I will give you rest.” Yes. Rest. Because he realizes we are just mere humans. That our hearts can only take so much. That our bodies have limitations. That we will, at times in this hard life, come to our very ends, and we need to stop everything for a little while, including pouring out.
(On a personal note, looking back, it has been very difficult for me at times to do what I do. To write about hard marriages and divorce and abuse and addiction and single mothering and the Church all the while trying to heal from my hard marriage and divorce. To read a thousand women’s stories, every day, in the private Facebook groups. To have women email me asking me if they can get a divorce, telling me how horrible their marriages are. My ministry is based off of my pain and other women’s pain. And I am triggered daily. So, personally, the way I’ve handled it is to make sure I am talking to my friends who aren’t in my situations, that I’m having fun, that I’m reading to read for pleasure, that I’m living my life, that I’m doing my healing work, that I’m in touch with my mentor, as well as setting some boundaries. For instance, though I used to read every post in all the groups, I do not do that anymore. And though I used to answer every email with a specific solution, I just can’t do that anymore. And when I notice I’m hitting a wall – which I can tell either because I am getting frustrated by what I’m reading in the groups or because I feel I’ve run out of things to write about – I am learning to take a break and step away, sometimes for a whole month like I did last summer, so I could get refreshed emotionally and mentally.)
But what if you just hate not being able to help someone? Then you pray that God bring someone else into your friend’s life to fill your void. He will, I promise. You are not the only person who can help her. It’s false humility on your part to think you are, and it’s selfish on her part to think you are. (Sorry if that sounded harsh; but I can only say that because I’ve been there: thinking I was the only person who could help so-and-so. It’s just not true.)
And what if your friend won’t get the hint or take no for an answer? Again, pray for someone else to swoop in. But then you’re going to have to have the tough conversation where you outright say you need space, and then you take the space. You set a boundary and you must follow through. It will be difficult, but she will (eventually) respect you for it, she will learn to go to more than just one person for help, and you will get the healing time and space you desperately need.
One day, you will feel stronger. And when that day comes, you will know it. And you will be able to pour out again in a more complete and whole way. In the meantime, rest, sweet one. And heal.
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