Asking for help when you're struggling can be hard, but what do you do if you can't support someone the way they need to be supported?

Last week, a tweet about how to respond to a loved one when they ask for help went viral, and sparked a conversation about exactly that. 

The poster, Melissa A Fabello – an academic with a PhD in Human Sexuality Studies – explained that the text she had received was from a close friend, one of a few in her life that she has "built into" her "capacity" for emotional support, so she never has to ask "permission" to vent. 

Still, Fabello used the text to argue that not enough consideration is paid to the people in our lives who we vent to and the emotional strain this might put on them. She said that often some friends will "unload" on her, sending her into her own emotional downward spiral, which she sees as unfair. 

"Asking for consent for emotional labor," she wrote, "even from people with whom you have a long-standing relationship that is welcoming to crisis-averting, should be common practice."

The tweet triggered a swell of debate, with many arguing that framing support as "emotional labour" was concerning. Many felt this was a healthy way to set boundaries, and did it already with their friends.

Her template for a reply if you cannot listen to a friend vent, however, quickly went viral. 

"Hey! I'm so glad you reached out", she writes. "I'm actually at capacity / helping someone else who's in crisis / dealing with some personal stuff right now, and I don't think I can hold appropriate space for you. Could we connect [at a later date or time] instead / Do you have someone else you could reach out to?" 

Fabello clarified that this wouldn't apply to emergency cases, but some felt this was a ludicrous way to respond to anyone struggling, and applied it to many scenarios: when your boss emails you, when your mum asks about your love life, when your dog wants to go for a walk. 

One thing is clear: asking for help, and stating that you are not in a place to emotionally support someone who does, is very hard to do. 

We spoke to Jade Lawless, Head of Counselling and Psychotherapy at PCI College and Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy board member about how to support and be supported by your loved ones when struggling. 

Thoughts on the Twitter thread? 
The Twitter thread is really interesting because it highlights an area that is often not spoken about – asking for help/support, but it does so in an unusual way by focusing on the person being asked, this is quite new for us, as a society, to think about.

Some took issue with the classing of asking for help as "emotional labour", what do you make of it? 
As a Counselling Psychologist myself I can certainly confirm that holding the emotional experiences of other people can, at times, be heavy. It requires time, attention, concentration and often a little aftercare but I feel lucky to call that aspect of my role 'work'.

When someone comes to you with a problem what they are really saying to you is: "I trust you, at this moment, you are the one I am choosing to share this with". I do agree that in order to give that person what they need and deserve, which is often simply to hear them, you need to have the space, time and be mindful of your own capacity in that moment.

What is a good way to ask someone for help or emotional support? 
I think the Twitter thread makes some very good suggestions. The very last thing we need to do is make anyone feel like a burden or self-conscious when asking for help.

Getting to the point where you are ready to ask for help is quite a big moment for lots of people, so this needs to be protected.

The next stage of this is identifying who would be a good support to you. Once you have found your trusted person it can be helpful to ask first for some time, because ultimately that is the key to feeling supported. It will not be very helpful if your confidant, with the best will in the world, has one ear on you and one eye on emails because the moment isn’t good timing for them. I would recommend starting off with something simple like "Would you have time soon for a chat?"

What is a good way to respond if you cannot offer that support? 
Honesty is key here. This can mean reassuring the person that it is not a reflection on them but rather where you are at, it could mean offering to support them at a different time, it might be that you let them know the reason why you cannot offer support right now.

An honest approach should help to dispel any feelings of rejection or embarrassment. You can offer a signpost to other more formal supports that might be available if you feel that the issue is too much for you to help with on your own.

Letting your loved one know that counsellors can be sourced through the IACP website or through their GP might be the best support that could be offered.

How do we balance an awareness of our loved ones' emotional states and our own need for support?
This can be a tricky one and requires good boundaries. Being aware of what is going on in the emotional lives of our loved ones is not the same as needing to fix or take responsibility for their emotional world.

We can know what they are dealing with and also hold a good boundary by allowing our loved one to work it through in their own way.

When these good boundaries are in place, this creates a real space for them to come and ask for help and hopefully that will become reciprocal when we need to ask for help ourselves.

When it comes to very close friends or family members, should we be as available to them as possible? 
It can be very daunting to think that you need to be available as much as possible and also a little unrealistic. Sometimes we will have to be unavailable as our own well might be dry. We are doing little to empower our loved ones if we always jump in to save the day.

The key is to create balance and boundaries. Even though it can be difficult to say "no" or "not right now", if we are honest about the reason why, most people will understand that and respect where you are coming from.

Is there a broader problem in that we are always contactable through social media, and haven't yet found ways around certain social interactions online? 
24/7 availability is certainly a problem. If you feel you are under pressure to respond in the moment there are a few strategies that you can try; turn your phone off (easier said than done!); set your online profile to unavailable while you engage in your own online world without appearing available to others; or redirect the conversation to a face to face setting – ask to meet up or to set a time for a phone call.