Giving help that makes a difference – the subtleties of emotional support online

A question of jealousy

Take a look at this relationships question about jealousy:

“I’m always worried my boyfriend is going to cheat on me when he’s out with his friends. I’m always texting him when he’s out and it annoys him but I have no confidence that he won’t cheat. We live together and have been together for nearly two years. I can’t help thinking ‘what if?’ even tho he says he has never cheated. I can just imagine that in the future he’ll decide he’s had enough and I will lose him. I really don’t want that. I’m pushing him away, I don’t want to but I am. Help me.”

How would you go about writing an answer?

Photo by Alyssa L Miller 

Photo by Alyssa L Miller


At the moment, I’m thinking a lot about the skills needed for peer support online – whether that be in mental health, relationships or other areas of support. You can have a look at a slideshow I did at a conference in Antwerp about using the web to provide peer support for emotional health and wellbeing here.

Emotional support

One of the key skills needed is the ability to give effective emotional support. This is fundamental to what we offer.

Let’s go back to that question.

There are different ways that this question could be approached and answered. Compare the two extracts from answers below (neither of these are answers by real advisors);

“It sounds like you are a jealous person which is causing problems for you. It sounds like you have no reason to be jealous as you say that your boyfriend has never cheated on you and is starting to get annoyed by your behaviour. It is therefore understandable that you want to try and get over these feelings of jealousy in order to move your relationship forward.
Communication is important. Try talking to your boyfriend about how you feel and your worries. You could also try going out and pursuing your own hobbies and interests so you are not always at home waiting for him – remember that you don’t own your boyfriend and that he has a right to go out with his friends as well.”

This answer is focusing on the events in the world (the fact that he has actually never cheated on her and that her boyfriend is getting annoyed with her) rather than how she is feeling and why. In fact it sounds like she would feel this way regardless of what is going on in the world. The answer provides some useful information about ways that people in relationships who do not feel jealousy might behave. However, it provides no more empathy or understanding than a factsheet designed to be read by anyone. It does not  focus on this individual’s situation.

A better answer

A good answer will provide more than this. This might part of an introduction;

“Jealousy is a difficult emotion and a lot of people struggle with it, whether it is founded in truth or not. It’s good that you are writing in to try and resolve your feelings about this as it does sound as though it may be starting to affect both your wellbeing and your relationship.

There can be a number of reasons why people start to feel jealous in a relationship and they are not always directly related to anything that is actually happening out there in the world. Sometimes it can be a reaction to something that has happened – a past betrayal of trust for example. Other times it can be more to do with your own feelings of insecurity or low self esteem. For example, if you feel negatively about yourself then you might struggle to believe that you are worthy of someone’s love. As a result of this you might feel convinced that there is someone better out there for your partner – and that he might meet them next time he is out.

In your case, you mention that you have low confidence and that you worry that one day your partner will decide he has had enough. Do you feel that if you were more confident in your relationship and your boyfriend’s feelings for you then you might feel less jealous or worried about him cheating? Hopefully by exploring the ways that you can understand and manage your feelings – and communicate them to your partner, you will find that you can start to think about things you can do to make the situation easier for yourself.”

While the first answer recognises that her jealousy is probably unfounded it disregards the fact that this is still how she feels. In fact she even says ‘I can’t help…’ – suggesting that she is aware that this is not something she should ideally feel. We need to be saying, yes, this might not be ideal but we understand why you might feel this way and can start to work with you to try and help you understand, manage and hopefully eventually overcome your feelings. This is the empathy and emotional support that is so important in helping people move forwards.

The first answer briefly covers why she shouldn’t be feeling jealous (which she already knows is a problem) and then goes straight into practical things she can do to ‘stop’ it happening. If the reason for her jealousy is her feelings of low self esteem and lack of confidence then an answer like this may end up making her feel more inadequate or resentful when she next ‘can’t help’ feeling jealous. This is especially the case with an emotion like jealousy – one that not going to go away instantly after the implementation of a couple of potential ‘solutions’. A list of information or suggestions about other ways that the user could feel about the situation is part of the answer, but empathy, reassurance and understanding that they might not be feeling this way right now is another part.

The fundamental role of an advisor

I think this is often the fundamental role of anyone working in advice and guidance online – it’s more about creating a situation where the person getting in touch feels reassured that how they are feeling is a normal part of the struggle that is human relationships/experience. They need to feel that someone understands the position they are in and is giving them help exploring different perspectives that they could take.

It can sometimes help to imagine what you might do if someone was upset and approached you with an issue face to face. If someone came to me in tears with this issue it is unlikely that I would just hand them a factsheet on ‘Communication as a Couple’ and ‘Improve your Social Life’ and tell them that their worries are unfounded, their boyfriend won’t cheat on them and they need to sort themselves out. I would focus on stopping them crying and getting them into a state where they are ready to accept how they feel and start to think about why they might be feeling it; whether it is something within themselves, something going on in the world or a combination of both. I would try and give them the reassurance and strength to face a problem that, at the end of the day, only they can actually solve.

This is not easy stuff – everyone has a tendency to try and ‘solve’ the problems that people ask us about. The way that I try to approach it is to look through the question for the users feelings as well as for the issues, try and understand why they are feeling this way and make sure that this understanding comes across in my answer. Don’t gloss over how they are actually feeling as they are sitting writing the question.

More important to us than the issues is how they feel about the issues.

Improving ability to deal with future issues

We want to reassuring users and give them emotional support to develop their self esteem and self knowledge so they can manage their emotions and feelings. If we can do this then hopefully we can help them to handle the problem that they are struggling with right now and also improve their ability to deal with future issues.

6 thoughts on “Giving help that makes a difference – the subtleties of emotional support online

  1. mikeg12

    superbly written piece and my answer would be–
    jealousy is a real and powerfull emotionally driven thought.
    insecurity caused by low self esteem is difficult to control and can be damaging in the long term.
    if at all possible i would write down how you feel and why and try to explain your thoughts process to your boy friend

  2. Clare Foster

    Thanks very much Mike – interesting you talk about writing things down – we suggest that people do that quite a lot – and my next post is going to be about journalling and writing therapy! Do you have positive experiences of using writing to help understand and communicate your emotions?

  3. peerwork

    Thank you for drawing my attention to this article via Twitter (I’m @PeerSupp) It was thoughtful and interesting and has made me think more about online peer support. I’m going to follow this blog. Renea

  4. Clare Foster

    Thanks very much peerwork! I’m actually running a training session today around essential skills for peer support online – think that will be the next blog 🙂

  5. Pingback: Youth Mental Health First Aid Online | Clare Rose Foster

  6. Pingback: Essential skills for giving online peer support – a course in development. | Clare Rose Foster

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