Imagine this: Your friend has just been dumped by her long-term significant other. She comes to you with an outpouring of tears and in a state of despair. In that moment, all you want is for her to feel better, so you reassure her that everything will be okay and give her a pep talk that she’ll find someone better and deserving of her love.
Or maybe this one: A coworker shows up to work and is not his usual cheerful and chatty self. He is visibly distracted and when you ask him what’s wrong, he explains that his mom has just been diagnosed with a terminal illness with only a few months left to live. You observe that he looks numb and disengaged, and it starts to feel uncomfortable. You offer a story of when your family faced an illness, and how everyone bonded and grew closer together through it.
Sounds pretty normal, right? Let me tell you why this doesn’t work.
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When people are going through hard things, our first reaction is to give advice or try to take the pain away.
Why do we do this? First of all, it’s uncomfortable to sit with pain and feel unable to do anything. We see that they are stuck or suffering, and that feels awkward and hard. We care about our friends and loved ones, and want their pain to stop. So we hand over a tissue, pat them on the back and tell them not to cry. Second, it’s easier to just give a word of advice or offer a nice statement, because it feels better that we are at least doing something.
Here are some common ways this comes out:
- Providing advice: “If you have a grateful attitude and focus on staying positive, you’ll get over this so much more quickly.”
- Fixing the problem: “If you just do......it’ll be better.”
- Minimizing or completely invalidating feelings: “You shouldn’t feel that way. This isn’t worth being sad over.”
- Spiritualizing the pain: “If you just pray and have more faith, everything will be different.”
- Silver lining: “At least everything else in life is going well.”
- Turning conversation to your own personal experience and then providing advice: “When this happened to me, I did this and that, and it worked for me.”
We’ve all done this one way or another - with the very best of intentions. However, using any of these responses is actually not helpful, because what it does is pushes our loved ones away, leaving them to feel very alone.
Maybe you’ve experienced this, where you’ve had a conversation with someone, gave some advice, and afterwards noticed they just don’t share as much anymore.
Essentially what they could be feeling is:
- Not understood
- Overwhelming for others (their pain is too much to handle)
- Hurried along with the problem
- Guilt and shame of what they are feeling
What’s even more difficult is when our loved ones or friends are going through this really hard thing, and then on top of that they feel so alone and unable to talk about it with the people around them.
So, if it’s the case that we have been supporting others in an unhelpful way, what does it actually look like to care for our hurting loved ones?
It’s pretty simple, actually.
The key to helping a loved one who is hurting is…listening.
I know this may sound very obvious to you, but there is a lot more to this.
In the past, whenever people would come to me and talk about their problems, my brain would immediately start processing what they were saying, and come up with all sorts of advice and ideas of what I could offer them. Yet during my graduate program, I started to learn that my role was not to fix people’s problems or make their pain go away. By trying to solve their situation, I was completely missing the person in front of me, and prescribing what I thought they were needing.
I made this shift in seeing that my role is just to listen. I hear them, help them process what they are experiencing, and care about what they are feeling. It’s not listening in the way where we are passively taking in information, but it’s actively helping people feel heard and understood. This type of listening isn’t easy, because it requires a lot of engagement to pay attention and try to understand what is being shared. It also means we are tapping into some empathy and validating our loved one's feelings surrounding the pain.
. . .
The key in helping a loved one who is hurting is to listen to what is being felt, to not judge in the moment, and offer compassion to what they are feeling.
When we stop giving advice or trying to fix the situation, it’s no longer about what insight or wisdom we have to offer. The focus becomes about the connection to our loved ones - helping them feel cared for and being with them through the painful moments. The thing is, neither you nor I really do have the answers, and it’s okay to admit that. What we can do is acknowledge our loved one’s courage to share, and the deep trust they have given to us.
When we have been entrusted with bearing witness to someone’s pain, our role is simply to listen and have compassion. Compassion literally means to “suffer with” - it’s feeling moved and joining with them where they are at. And that is enough.
I want to caveat that despite doing all this, our loved ones could still respond by:
- denying any pain or unpleasantness
- pushing away, feel misunderstood and unsupported
- sinking into withdrawal and depression
I know this could feel discouraging and hard. Again, our role is to provide a safe space for them to not feel alone and support them to deal with the pain when they are ready.
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One last note, but a very important one.
Whenever we talk about pain and suffering, we also need to be aware of the risks of depression and suicide. We get glimpses of it everywhere and are reminded by the heart-breaking realities that this cannot go unaddressed.
Some flags to look out for:
- Complete withdrawal and isolation from others/community for extended amount of time
- Avoidance of negative emotions, and increased use of unhealthy coping (alcohol, drugs, food, any other addictive behavior)
- Rumination and repeated statements about death and dying
If you notice any of these in your loved one’s behavior, ask them directly if they are having thoughts of hurting themselves or wanting to end their life.
This is by no means an easy conversation and can feel scary and intimidating. There is a myth that if you ask someone about suicide or self-harm that it will plant that idea into their mind. This is not true. There is no danger in asking, but by doing so, it can be crucial to offer someone who is struggling with these thoughts to get the help they need.
If your loved one is currently experiencing any suicidal ideation, please immediately connect them to a professional support: this could be a local therapist, calling the suicide hotline: (800) 273-8255, or taking them to the nearest hospital.
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Love and listen well, friends.