By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD
What do you do when a loved one comes to you upset about some problem? It’s natural to feel for their pain and to want to ease it. Most people feel compelled to try to make the situation better in some way. They either offer suggestions about how to fix the problem or dole out advice to not waste time worrying. Unfortunately, both ways of trying to help frequently backfire. Sometimes – often times – the best action is to begin by just offering caring.
To understand what’s wrong with giving advice, it’s helpful to think about what it’s like for you to get it. The problem isn’t so much the advice as it is the timing of it. When you are really upset about some issue and sharing your distress with someone, you’re probably first looking for that person to really understand your dilemma. You want him or her to empathize with your pain so that you feel understood and less alone in it. Then, maybe, you would want to hear the other person’s advice on how to fix the problem.
Similarly, imagine being told that a problem (or person you are upset with) isn’t something worth wasting your time on. When you are feeling really hurt or angry or upset in some way, the message that the problem isn’t a worthy one can also send the message that there’s something wrong with you for being upset.
Instead, when faced with loved ones who are upset, try offering your attention and concern. When you listen carefully to their distress and are willing to experience it with them – not rushing them through it – you are letting them know that you care enough to be with them even in their pain. You are not fixing their problem, but you are serving the more important function of validating the reality and importance of their experiences, and providing a sense of connection; of not being alone in it. These experiences can be very comforting. Then, if you are able to help with some practical advice, that’s a bonus.
I suggest this approach as if it is easy, but it’s most definitely not. When you consciously sit with someone, allowing their pain to really touch you, you’ll find that it can be incredibly difficult. It’s instinctive to turn away from pain. But your choice to stay with the distress of someone you care about is an opportunity. It’s as intimate a connection as two people can have. Give it a try. You just might find that your greatest ability in helping others has nothing to do with what you can do for them and everything to do with just being with them.
The Art of Relationships blog posts are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation; and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for individual professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you need help for an emotional or behavioral problem, please seek the assistance of a psychologist or other qualified mental health professional.