A little about this guide
You’re reading this guide because you want to provide helpful and compassionate support for someone who is accessing sexual and reproductive healthcare.
It doesn’t matter if you’re the official support person for their procedure, whether you’re a partner, friend, family member, or an acquaintance – this guide is for anyone who wants to learn more about providing timely and empathetic emotional support.
Firstly, thank you for caring about the person in your life who is going through this experience (the supportée). Your support can make a big difference to their experience.
Secondly, thank you for taking the time to read this guide. We know that sometimes it’s hard to know what to say, and it’s our hope that by the end of this guide you’ll have a better idea of how to provide emotional support to someone you care about.
We have many clients who see us for a number of different procedures. When you see the words ‘the supportée’, we’re referring to the person that you’re emotionally supporting.
What is sexual and reproductive healthcare?
Sexual and reproductive health (SRH) is a broad area of healthcare that covers pretty much everything to do with the sexual and reproductive parts of our bodies – from our genitals, to our reproductive organs (uteruses, testicles, ovaries, and more) and even how our brains work when it comes to sex.
Unlike many other areas of healthcare, SRH is often highly stigmatised. This means that there’s a lot of information and discussion around it that may not be accurate or may not be presented in a supportive or helpful way. This can make it seem like it’s shameful to seek help, or like there’s something morally wrong with you if you have a sexual or reproductive health issue.
This is one of the many reasons why it’s important for someone seeking sexual and reproductive healthcare to be surrounded by kind and compassionate people.
Reasons for accessing sexual and reproductive healthcare
There are many different reasons that someone may need to seek out SRH. It can include everything from accessing contraception, to getting an STI check, having an abortion, seeking IVF treatment, and more.
However, unless the supportée chooses to talk to you about the details of their healthcare, you should try not to ask about it. They may feel embarrassed, or they may prefer to keep their health concerns private. But if they want to talk to you about it, they’ll let you know.
What does good emotional support look like?
We all have people in our lives that we care about. But, we all have different ways of showing people that we care.
Sometimes, the way we express our care doesn’t actually match up with the care that someone really wants from us.
Good emotional support is about providing the care that someone wants, in the way that they want it. Providing the care the supportée wants helps them feel that you have genuine concern for their wellbeing, whereas providing the care that you want to give can sometimes leave people feeling more stressed and upset.
It can be hard to put aside our instinctual care response – the ones that spring to mind before we’ve even really thought about it. But providing good emotional care is about making sure that we’re putting the supportée first, instead of our need to care for them in our own way.
What is instinctual care giving?
Sometimes the hardest part about providing good emotional support is learning to recognise the type of care we provide instinctually.
Most of us are unaware of the ways we instinctually care for others, unless someone points it out. Often the ways we instinctually provide care don’t even match up with the ways we like to be cared for ourselves.
There are many different ways we might instinctually respond to someone who we think needs care. Some people will offer advice, others will show they care by taking control of things, such as cooking, cleaning, or administrative tasks. Some of us can’t help but reach out and provide a supportive hug. There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these things, but if we’re doing them without the supportée’s consent we might actually make things worse.
For example, someone who wants to vent about something unpleasant that happened to them might feel frustrated by having to respond to advice that they didn’t ask for, or want. Someone struggling to feel in control might be overwhelmed by having someone take over their kitchen, or cleaning away objects where they can’t find them. A person who has experienced physical assault might be startled or distressed by an unexpected hug.
This is why it’s so important that we recognise the ways we instinctually provide care, and how to separate it from providing the care that the supportée actually wants and needs.
Once we recognise the ways we instinctually give care it’s easier to notice when we’re slipping into an instinctual care response. From there we can correct our actions so that we’re actually providing the our supportée has requested.
How to ask what the supportée needs
So how do we provide the care that our supportée wants and needs?
It’s simple. We ask them. Having a conversation with the supportée about what they want and need is the most important step to providing good emotional support.
When you’re ready to have this conversation, there’s a couple of things to keep in mind that will make it easier for you and the supportée:
- It’s important to make sure that you have this conversation in a private place where they feel comfortable sharing, where they won’t be distracted
- Make sure that you have set aside enough time that you can properly listen and take in whatever they might say.
It’s not often that someone asks us what kind of care we want or need. And because we don’t often get asked, many of us might not know the answer. If you talk to your supportée and they seem unsure, or even stressed by the idea of figuring out what they want, that’s okay - don’t pressure them to answer.
If someone can’t explain what kind of care they want, we can simply ‘hold space’ for them until they think of something more specific.
How to hold space for someone
Holding space is a relatively new term for a very helpful practice.
Holding space means consciously being there for someone, not being distracted or distant.
It means being present and aware of them, taking in what they are doing, or saying to you.
It means being open and non-judgemental, listening to what they tell you without responding with your own opinion or advice. Your job is not to fix their problem or to try and change their situation, or even their attitude to the situation. Your job is simply to be there with them while they express and feel their emotions.
It means allowing them to take as much time as they need, putting your own needs and opinions aside for the time that you’re with them.
Holding space can be tricky if you’re not used to it. We’re used to having ‘conversations’ with people we care about, where they will tell us their problems and then we tell them our problems and both of us will usually use our instinctual care giving responses. But when you’re holding space, you might spend hours talking about the supportées feelings without ever bringing up your own, or offering any advice or opinions.
Sometimes holding space doesn’t involve talking. Your supportée might want to be physically held, or they might want to cry, or they might want to sit on the couch and read a book. If this is what they want to do with you, holding space means simply being there, holding them, passing them tissues while they cry, or reading a book next to them.
How to listen when you’re holding space
If your supportée wants to talk to you, it means ‘actively listening’ to what they’re saying. Many of us are used to ‘conversational listening’, where we simply listen for a break in what’s being said so we can jump in with our own contribution.
Active listening means taking in what your supportée is saying and providing feedback that lets them know you’re listening. This can be simple, non-verbal things like eye contact, facial expressions, or nodding.
It can also be things like asking questions, or asking for clarification, to make sure you’re understanding their story. Most importantly, it means withholding any judgement, opinions or advice.
When someone we care about is having a tough time, it’s natural that we want to fix things for them. But it’s important to resist that urge. Give them space to share everything they’re feeling, and only when they’re finished, ask if they would like your advice. Offering solutions without asking if they’re wanted can leave people feeling like they’ve unduly burdened you, or like they need to resolve their issues, when all they actually wanted was just to talk about them.
Looking after yourself
When you’re travelling in a plane, the flight attendant will usually take a moment to explain the safety procedures in case something goes wrong. They will explain that when the oxygen masks drop, it’s important to put yours on first before putting on anyone else’s. The reason for this is that if you run out of oxygen, you’re not going to be able to help anyone else. Think of self-care as your oxygen mask.
It’s very easy, when we’re worried about another person, to forget to look after ourselves. But if we don’t take time to care for ourselves, we’re not going to be in the best place to provide good emotional support to others.
What is self-care?
Self-care is, quite literally, caring for yourself. It’s about recognising the parts of yourself that are under strain and taking steps to minimise that strain or recover from it.
Self-care includes anticipating things that might do you harm, and finding ways to minimise that. For instance, setting boundaries with someone that you’re supporting can help prevent emotional burn out.
Setting a boundary might mean having a conversation with the supportée and asking them not to discuss certain topics that you know will cause you distress, or letting the supportée know that you only feel comfortable providing support in your own home, rather than public places.
If you’re supporting someone who is struggling emotionally, it can be easy to become overwhelmed or burned out – this is why setting boundaries is so important. However, even with healthy boundaries in place, it’s normal to feel tired or worn-out after providing emotional support. This is why you should have a self-care strategy in place.
A self-care strategy is basically a plan for helping yourself to feel better. Self-care can be physical, emotional, mental, social or even sensory. If you have a sore leg, self-care can be going to a physiotherapist and then taking a break from exercising until your leg is recovered. If you are worn out from supporting someone else, it might mean reaching out to the people who support you and having a conversation. It might mean spending some time alone, where you don’t have to do any additional socialising. It doesn’t really matter what it is, as long as it helps you to feel less tired and more replenished.
You matter, and your needs matter. It’s great to support the people we care about, but we can only do that if we’re looking after ourselves.
If you’re supporting someone who is having a procedure with us, both you and the supportée can access our free counselling service.
If at any time you, or the supportée, would like to talk to someone, you can call us on 1300 003 707 to make an appointment with one of our counsellors.