by Annabelle Parr
Life presents us each with challenges. While it is often uncomfortable and painful to grapple with adversity, to experience this struggle and to feel pain is to be human. At some point, we will all find ourselves in this place, as will those we love. So how can we help each other? How can we listen when someone we love is struggling, whether it is with a mental health condition or with a painful experience in his/her life?
LET GO OF THE IMPULSE TO TRY TO FIX
It is painful to watch someone we care for struggle or hurt. And it’s natural to want to take away her pain or try to fix the problem at hand. However, despite our best intentions, trying to “fix” does not actually help. It tends to make the person struggling feel as though she cannot share her pain, sadness, or anger. Trying to “fix” sends this message: “I can’t handle seeing you in pain, so I have to make everything better.” It also implies that it is not okay to feel sad or angry or anxious, and that these feelings should be avoided at all costs.
Just like our impulse to fix the pain, we also often believe that the best way to help is to offer advice. But advice is usually not helpful for several reasons.
- If we offer good advice, our loved one will think that anytime he is struggling, he needs our instruction.
- If we offer bad advice or our advice doesn’t work as we hoped, our loved one can place the blame on us instead of owning responsibility.
- Advice takes away the gift of helping our loved one to realize that she knows herself best, and ultimately she is capable of navigating difficult situations herself. (Though, of course, she will always have our love and support).
LIMIT SHARING YOUR OWN SIMILAR EXPERIENCES
If you have had a similar experience or believe that you have felt the same way, you can share this with your loved one. But don’t make it all about you. Keep your story brief, and make sure the purpose of the story is to let him know that he is not alone. Also, be sure to include that you understand that your experience, while maybe parallel in some ways, is yours, and you are not claiming to have experienced the exact same situation or feelings. This allows him to feel comfort in not being alone, but also gives him space to communicate how his experience may be different.
If we shouldn’t try to fix the pain or offer advice, and we should limit how much we share of our own experience, what can we do to help?
REFLECT OR PARAPHRASE BACK TO YOUR LOVED ONE WHAT YOU HEAR HIM/HER EXPRESSING
This shows that we are listening, and gives us the opportunity to clarify that which we don’t understand fully. While it may sound too simple to just reflect what our loved one is saying, it actually makes the person feel heard and understood. It also offers her the opportunity to hear what she is expressing, and to clarify how she feels or what she wants.
USE NONVERBAL SIGNALS TO SHOW YOU ARE ENGAGED
Nodding and using eye contact and engaged body language shows that we are interested and open to what our loved one is sharing. It gives him the space to express himself, and makes him feel heard.
Empathy is: “I see that you are struggling and hurting right now, and I am so sorry. I can’t fix it for you or take it away, but I will sit here with you and listen to your story. As much as this hurts, it is okay to feel this way.”
Check out Brene Brown’s brilliant short on empathy.
Sometimes, all our loved ones need when they are in pain is to be heard; to be given a space with someone they trust to express how they are feeling. Sometimes, however, they may need some extra support or professional help.
CSAM IS HERE TO HELP
If you or someone you love might benefit from acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), or biofeedback for anxiety, depression, stress, or PTSD, or if you would like more information about our therapy services, please contact us at (858) 354-4077 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brown, B. (2013, Dec 10). Brené Brown on empathy. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369Jw