A few months ago I wrote about how we can sit with our own painful emotions. Often we don’t. Instead, we gloss over negative feelings. We self-medicate. We berate ourselves for having negative feelings, making us feel even worse. (I can’t believe I’m upset about something so small! I’m so sensitive. I’m so stupid for feeling anxious about that.)
What’s also difficult is sitting with someone else’s pain and supporting them. It can feel awkward and uncomfortable — especially if we have a hard time with our own emotions. Our knee-jerk reaction may be to ignore what’s happening, offer solutions, be overly positive or act on any number of behaviors that dismiss the person’s feelings.
This month we asked two psychotherapists to share their insights into how we can truly support someone through their pain (and how not to).
When people are in pain, they’re less likely to reach out for support, even though they need it, said Rachel Eddins, M.Ed., LPC-S, a psychotherapist in private practice in Houston, Texas.
The first important step in supporting someone is to simply reach out. Let them know that you’re there for them. “Don’t be afraid of their pain.”
When Eddins was going through a tough time, one of the best things a person did for her was to say: “I was calling to check in with you and see how you’re doing. If you want to talk about things, that’s great. I’m happy to do so. If you want to just connect and talk about other things, that’s great, too.”
Eddins’s friend acknowledged how she was feeling and was willing to be there regardless of whether she wanted to talk about the situation. After that, she also offered to do something fun together, “which was even better.”
Really listen to them.
Another key part of showing support is actively listening to the person, according to Eva-Maria Gortner, Ph.D, a counseling psychologist in private practice in Houston, Texas. She said that this includes:
- Approaching your conversation without any assumptions.
- Paraphrasing the other person’s words to make sure you understand, such as: “It sounds like work has been getting tougher because of all these new demands at your job.”
- Acknowledging how they’re feeling based on what they’ve said so far, such as: “Getting this feedback from your boss is stressing you out.”
- Finding something positive to say to show you respect them, such as: “I appreciate you trusting me with this problem.”
- Asking gentle, open-ended questions to better understand what they’re thinking and feeling, such as: “How come?”; “What do you think about …?”; “How do you feel about …?”
Don’t offer solutions.
Trying to fix the situation makes people feel misunderstood and not cared for, Eddins said. It invalidates their emotions. And it “almost assumes that they can’t problem solve.”
Don’t make the situation about yourself.
According to Gortner, this might look like saying: “This reminds me of when my grandmother died….”; “I feel the exact same way, let me tell you about….”; “When my aunt had cancer, she tried this new treatment…”; “After my miscarriage, we tried again right away and it worked! You should do the same.”
Pain is complex, and can feel like a roller-coaster, Eddins said. Focus instead on the person’s unique experience, she said. For instance, you might say: “Help me understand what it’s like for you. I’d like to understand more about how you’re feeling if you’d like to share. You’re going through so much, what’s it like for you?”
She shared these other helpful phrases you can say: “I’m so sorry to hear that. I’m here with you. You’re in my thoughts. Thinking of you. That sounds so painful. I’m so sorry that you’re hurting right now. I know you’ve been through a lot. I’m thinking of you and sending you big hugs. I love you.”
Don’t assume or prognosticate.
What also doesn’t help is “making an assumption about the person’s situation or feelings, or predicting the future (which no one can),” said Gortner, who writes the blog “Everyday Psychology.” She shared these examples: “Tomorrow, you will feel better,” “Give it a week,” “He’ll come around,” “I have a feeling you will be just fine,” or “It will work out next time.”
Don’t minimize their emotions.
According to Gortner, we might minimize someone else’s emotions by saying anything from “You’ll get over it” to “Come on, it’s not that bad” to “Just dust yourself off, and try again.”
This kind of talk also focuses on the future. And, as Eddins said, “Your friend is not in the future, your friend is right now in the pain. Show up for them in the present.”
Don’t compare their pain to anyone else’s.
“When we’re dealing with difficult emotions, it’s always possible to find a ‘worse’ situation as well as a similar situation,” Eddins said. However, this too is invalidating, she said. Whether someone else has it worse doesn’t change the emotional pain the person is feeling in this moment. Their pain is real, she said. “[W]alking with them in the present moment is the most loving, compassionate thing you can do.”
Acknowledge you don’t know what to say.
Sometimes, we don’t know what to say, so we don’t say anything or we don’t acknowledge the pain a person is dealing with. But this sends “the message that you don’t care or aren’t interested or are too uncomfortable to be there for your friend in need,” Eddins said.
She suggested simply saying: “I’m so sorry, I really don’t know what to say right now.”
Offer concrete support.
The question “Is there anything I can do?” can actually overwhelm someone who’s in pain, Gortner said. “They may not want to burden you or feel overwhelmed by trying to figure out what they want you to do for them.”
Instead, she suggested offering concrete support, such as: “I’m bringing over dinner tonight. If you don’t feel like talking, I will simply leave it at the door.”
Sitting with someone who’s in pain can be tough. But the most supportive thing we can do is to truly listen and be present with them in that very moment — without trying to fix the situation, making assumptions, making it about ourselves or minimizing their pain.