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Carolyn Hax: Cast a wider net to find the support you need

(Nick Galifianakis/for The Washington Post)
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Adapted from an online discussion.

Dear Carolyn: This week, my husband lost his job. I make enough to cover the bills while he's out of work, he has a few really solid leads on other opportunities, and our overhead is low — no kids, no mortgage, no student loans. Basically, I can reason through it that we're going to be fine, but this is really scary and stressful. He was a star employee and fired for a stupid mistake that none of his colleagues even realized was a fireable offense. It really killed him to be let go because he loved his job.

I just can't talk to anyone about all the fear and uncertainty I'm feeling. I can't stand people's pity and I'm baffled by the judgments people can extrapolate from any crack in my bravest, this-is-fine face. If I am anything but positive and confident, I'm flooded with pity, unhelpful advice and platitudes.

For instance, my parents and in-laws were screeching that we can't pay rent next week, which we absolutely can, but now I can't express fear to them because I'm calming them down. I told my sister I was upset that he'd made a boneheaded mistake and then hear from my brother that we're on the brink of divorce, which is absurd. I told a friend I was shocked because he was a rising-star employee, and she sends me reams of advice she's not qualified to give on pursuing legal action for wrongful termination. If I want people to treat me normally, it feels like my only option is to cheerfully tell people we're absolutely a-okay!

My husband is really the only one I can be honest with, but he feels responsible because it's his fault I'm feeling that and that kills him. I'm exhausted and I'm not sure how to help myself.

— Exhausted

Exhausted: Ugh. I suspect many of us have a version of your problem but can’t put our fingers right on it as you did.

And those of us with calm, supportive people in our lives who know how to listen, maybe need to take a moment to thank them.

It’s just really hard when you’re looking for help and wind up with an even bigger emotional workload dealing with the stress of your would-be helpers. (It happens to new parents all the time.) Some people you just have to write off, as you have, as not worth the trouble of confiding in.

But some, please at least try to “train.” Spell out the problem, kindly: “I know you mean well, but right now getting advice/suggestions/warnings just means more emotional work for me. What I could really use is a sympathetic ear.” Or, as you said so well: “We’re going to be fine, but this is still really scary and stressful.”

If you can swing it financially, a good therapist can be where you unload without hassle.

Oddly enough, people in tough spots often find it’s a second-degree friend or relative, not a super-close one, who comes through with the steady support, patience and flexibility. Being less emotionally connected lowers the stress and ups the clarity, perhaps? So consider looking a little further out for the shoulder you need.

And don’t discount movement: Where people don’t help, often motion and fresh air can.

Write to Carolyn Hax at Get her column delivered to your inbox each morning at