Helping others in Emotional Pain

If you know someone in any kind of emotional pain, they are literally drowning.  This emotional pain can be described perfectly by the "Drowning Story" below.

The Drowning Story

Imagine that you and I are sitting together by a pool. We are enjoying a pleasant lunch, a warm tropical breeze, and the soothing music of a live band.

But then someone in the pool begins to splash you, first on your shoes, then higher up on your legs. You can’t see who it is because there’s a deck chair between you and the person in the pool.

At first you ignore it, but eventually you begin to get irritated. Finally you get up from your chair to say something to this thoughtless idiot. As you stand up to look over the chair, however, you see that the man splashing you is drowning.

He’s only splashing because he’s thrashing and kicking in the water to keep his head from going under.

How do you feel now? Are you still angry at the man? Of course not–who in their right mind could be angry at someone who’s drowning? In fact, as soon as you see why he’s splashing you, you lose your irritation. You also immediately try to help him out of the water.

A drowning man being rescued

Real Love Helps Us Understand Emotional Pain

The way you feel toward other people in real life can change just as quickly with an understanding of Real Love.

Real Love is the single most important ingredient required for happiness. Without it, the emotional pain people feel makes them feel like they’re drowning all the time. 

Then they’ll use the Getting and Protecting Behaviors—anger, lying, acting like victims, withdrawing, and a wide variety of addictions—to temporarily keep their heads above water. As they’re splashing about in the water with these behaviors, they often affect us in negative ways.

When you understand that, your anger at others quickly disappears. It is replaced by a desire to do what you can to help relieve their pain.

The Pitfalls of Helping Someone in Emotional Pain

The drowning story is a powerful metaphor for understanding emotional pain, but actually it’s too easy. The circumstances of real life are much more difficult.

The Danger of Lifesaving

In real life, drowning people are desperate and dangerous. With occasional exceptions, they will fight your efforts to save them. If you throw a rope, they’ll yank on it and knock you off balance. If you go out in a rowboat, they’ll tip you over. And if you’re brave enough–or perhaps foolish enough–to jump in the water to help them, they’ll pull you under the surface.

Drowning man desperately reaching for help.

Anyone who has attempted to be a wise man for another person knows how this metaphor plays out. Emotionally drowning people are desperate.

In their attempts to fill their emptiness or relieve their pain they don’t consider or realize their effect on others. From their perspective, the pain of their situation justifies any injury they might cause to others.

The Picky Drowners

Drowners rarely accept whatever help you offer without criticizing it.

If you throw a rope, it won’t be the right material, or color, or thickness. Or your throw will miss them.

Heaven help you if you throw the rope and hit them in the head. They’ll scream that you’ve hurt them, that you were mean, cruel, and thoughtless, blaming you for their entire condition. 

Throwing a rope to a drowning person.

Many people would rather drown than accept a rope thrown imperfectly.

We see this every day from people who have no solution to their misery but are quick to curse the mistakes–real and imagined–of anyone who tries to help.

Repeat Drowners

Some people will accept your attempts to pull them from the water, but then they’ll jump right back in, so they can cry for help again.

They find this endlessly entertaining.

Boy drowning crying for help.

We see this acted out by people who enjoy the attention of being rescued. They enjoy it so much that it almost seems that they choose to create situations where rescue is required.

The Denial of Drowning

Some people simply deny that they’re drowning. They splash everyone, but if you point that out, they respond, “Oh no, I’m just swimming. I’m not splashing you. What are you talking about?”

You point out that you and everyone else are getting wet, but they respond that it must be raining.

You might ask them if they notice that they are thrashing in the water, and that their breathing is difficult. “No,” they say. “I’m fine.” 

Woman denies that she's drowning

You are quite surprised at this, but they continue to say that they are fine.

It is common for people to deny that their behavior is affecting anyone in a negative way, including themselves. If people admit they are drowning, they would then be obligated to do something about it. So they choose denial, which they believe is the easier course. Insane, but there you are.

The Denial of Responsibility

Some people will admit that they’re drowning, but they deny responsibility for it.

They believe that somehow that will make their situation better. “Yes, I’m drowning, but it’s not my fault.”


Woman drowning in swimming pool.

Take anger, for example. People might admit that they’re angry, but then they blame it on others. They hope that this approach will magically confer happiness on themselves and others–which it never does.

If you attempt to show how someone’s behavior hurt another person, he might respond, “I didn’t mean to.” He thinks that this excuse will make the hurtful behavior disappear.

So How Can You Help Someone in Emotional Pain?

Considering the many risks of helping a drowning person, how do you even think about helping without becoming paralyzed with fear?

It might help to remember the following:

You are not responsible for the condition of any drowning person.

People are drowning as a result of a lifetime of experiences.

They are not drowning because of what you did or did not do in any particular moment. Most people are lost in the middle of the ocean.

If you make a mistake, that might splash a bit of water in their direction and become an inconvenience. But you did not put them in the middle of the ocean.

It is important that you understand this. If you feel an exaggerated sense of responsibility, you will be blinded by your own guilt and fear. Blind, you’ll engage–mostly unconsciously–in behaviors designed to diminish your own guilt and fear. This will interfere with your ability to selflessly help others.

You can love people and teach them, but you cannot save them.

If you feel responsible for saving, you’ll try to reduce your own discomfort when rescue is not being accomplished. When you are uncomfortable, you’ll help too much. You won’t be paying attention to what the drowning person is capable of himself. Your efforts to help will actually weaken the person you claim to be assisting. It’s also likely that you’ll help more than you are able, thereby weakening and perhaps crippling yourself.

Whatever the drowner says or does to you is all about him or her, not you.

Whether your assistance is flawed or not, drowning people tend to blame in a flood of abusive language. 

If you believe they are describing you–rather than their own lifetime of pain–you’ll be selfishly motivated to protect yourself.

Healthy assistance is what can be given freely.

If you remember these principles, you’ll be free to realize that the only healthy assistance you can offer is what you can give freely.

As a wise man, you love and teach as much as you can and as much as the other person can receive. Don’t try to do too much, or you’ll be exhausted and useless to everyone, including yourself. Don’t consistently do too little, either, or you will not grow in knowledge or strength.

As we attempt to offer ourselves to those drowning in emotional pain, we do not come from a position of arrogance. Hardly, because we remember that the only reason we’re not drowning ourselves is that others have pulled us from the water.

We offer what we can to others, from an attitude of love and gratitude. In the process, we grow in our own joy and capacity to love.

What Can You Do Now?

Maybe you feel like you are drowning in emotional pain.

If you — 

  • really have a hard time feeling happy and enjoying life.
  • carry around feelings of guilt and shame — for things you did and didn’t do, for the people you’ve hurt.
  • find yourself constantly getting into arguments and conflicts with your spouse, kids, and co-workers — even total strangers in traffic.
  • keep attracting the wrong people and can’t seem to make a happy, fulfilling, and peaceful relationship last.
  • wonder why you feel the way you do, why you make the decisions you make, and you wish you could be clear about what drives you.

Now you can finally do something that will transform your life and relationships forever.

Simply start here.

Explore our most popular learning topics.