How to Protect Yourself when Supporting Others (and how NOT to be a SPONGE)

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How to Protect Yourself when Supporting Others (and how NOT to be a SPONGE)

When you’re taking on the role of a Mental Health First Aider, (MHFAider) a supportive friend, or in your role as a Manager, sometimes it can be easy to put your needs second.  When this happens, you can deplete your energy reserves pretty quickly. It could even affect your own mental health and wellbeing.

We want to remind you to do so in ways that are both sustainable (for you and those you support) and protect your own wellbeing.

These are some of the things that you CAN do:

1. Set healthy boundaries – tip; to help you and the person you’re helping

Maybe you are one of “those people” who others flock to in their hour of need?  Do you find yourself coming to the aid of others frequently? This could be at work or outside work. Firstly, congratulations, you are obviously a compassionate person – but we don’t want you to drown! Or get “compassion fatigue” do we?  So, setting yourself some boundaries will ensure that when you are supporting others, you have the energy to do so.

Setting boundaries is up to you of course, but think about –

Time – time frames for your availability.  When can they expect you to be available or get back to them? Immediately? With the hour? Within 24 hours? A week?

When are you available? Your evening and weekends are for YOU – only allow others to trespass on them if that is what YOU are prepared to accept – or if they are in a crisis. Whilst workplace time frames may be easier to insist on, even friends should be nudged to respect that you do NOT want to be contacted late at night, for example.

If you are a MHFAider at work and you have a group of fellow MHFAiders, consider a rota system so that you are not always “on duty”.  You might still approach someone who concerns you, but others will also be there for everyone to “book”.

What can you help with? Outline what your remit as a Manager/ MHFAider is (if appropriate.) What are you trained to deal with?  However, in friendship groups sometimes this isn’t possible.  If you are out of your depth being prepared to say so is helpful “Wow, that sound really challenging – I’m not sure I can help with it. Who do we know who could? Can we Google it?/Find help somewhere/A service that deals with this? Let me check in my MHFA manual and get back to you” Remember – nobody knows everything!!

2. They “own” their situations and difficulties

One of the great Listening Skills is Reflecting – seeing yourself as a mirror or sounding board, onto which they are bouncing ideas, difficulties, opinions, fears. And it bounces or reflects, back to them – you are NOT a SPONGE taking it all onboard for you to FIX.  This can be quite hard to get your head around – isn’t that what you are meant to do? Fix people? Rarely is that the case – you are empowering the person to find THEIR solution to THEIR problem – remember yours will NOT necessarily fit them!

Encouraging help seeking behaviour for your friend or colleague will empower them to take control, make decisions that are right for them and act on them.

Encouraging them to remember their own personal helpful coping strategies (and to keep doing them,) and to reduce unhelpful coping strategies can help them to reduce their stress. In turn this will help them to think more clearly and be more resourceful.

Being consistent and compassionate about this will help enormously. No, they may not act immediately on your insightful/wonderful suggestions or options – it will take some people a long time before “the penny drops” and the barriers they thought were there have gone or they have a change of mindset. Keeping that compassion and consistency going will often bear fruit, but it might take time.

So they take their situation away with them (not you) to consider, to reflect on, to process.

You may want to spend a few moments reflecting on the conversation or, for instance, finding information that you promised.  Your friend or colleague is now taking their situation away with them – probably feeling a lot lighter and maybe they have got a better handle on it, a fresh perspective – if so you have succeeded!

3. Have your own support ready and “good to go”

Supporting others and having challenging or difficult conversations can take it out of you. If you were a Therapist, you would have access to “supervision” to debrief, to evaluate your responses etc. Have a plan to protect and nourish yourself after such a conversation.
Due to the need to keep a MHFA conversation confidential and possibly any conversation with family and friends too, you may think that you have nowhere to go to discuss things – which might be exactly what you need to do.

Always remember that you have access to the Samaritans, (116 123) just as everyone else does. They are NOT only there for people who are suicidal – they are there for anyone who needs to talk, and will, of course, completely understand your confidentiality dilemma – they also hold this to a very high standard.

But you might want to go for a walk or run or stretch it out?

Or do something relaxing like listen to music, or something creative like doodling.

Or find a good relaxation track or mindfulness App.

Or watch a funny video

Having a wide support network is helpful, whether in person, over zoom, in support groups on social media.

The ideas is that you have a plan to take good care of yourself on the other side of such a conversation – a soft “landing”.

4. Know your limits

There can come a point when listening and being there for a friend or colleague isn’t working. It may be that you simply can’t offer them the help they need.

Maybe you have done everything that you can think of. You might begin to feel things are going round in circles – maybe they continue to refuse to seek some professional support or they’re not respecting your boundaries? You might be doubting that you are helping? Have that conversation with them – don’t pull away suddenly, as that can add to their distress. Saying “I feel like I have come to the end of what I can help with– and you need something more than I can offer” This might have the effect of jolting them out of a rut, or help them to see that it’s their move”.

Sometimes support becomes “enabling” – almost becoming part of the situation or problem, not supporting change, but almost helping them to stay stuck. If this is a possibility, consider whether it might be best (for you both) if you take a step back from supporting them. Withdrawing support from a friend may sound extreme, but in some cases, it can be the wake-up call the friend needs to find the right support for them. Do this with compassion and gentleness rather in an argument – in frustration.

Every situation is different however and it’s important to listen to your gut and consider the situation as calmly as you can.

Positive relationships should be mutual – obviously sometimes we will be doing more of the support and at other times others will support us – it should feel like that though, rather than one-sided and you always being the one doing the hard work.  This is important for your positive mental health and wellbeing – it feels good to be able to help people when they need it, but we need an exit strategy if we feel we are in too deep.

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