Have you ever been with a friend, partner, your kid, etc. and they’re extremely upset about something going on in their lives? For example, they failed a class, lost a parent, lost their job, or are struggling with a health issue? What is your first reaction? My first reaction is often to try to do or say whatever I can to make their suffering go away as fast as possible. If the person experiencing the distress is a young kid, I might have the urge to distract them; for example, by saying, “Check out this cool toy!” If it’s an adult, I might go into problem-solving or advice-giving mode, and say something like, “Maybe it’s time to discuss with your boss the possibility of moving to another department?”. While these approaches can be helpful, there are some ways in which they are potentially problematic.
What is wrong with trying to advice-give or problem-solve our loved ones’ suffering away, or distract them from their negative emotion? I’ve listed a few of the potential problems with this approach below.
1. You might be invalidating their feelings.
By trying to advice-give/problem-solve/distract our loved ones’ suffering away, we could inadvertently be giving them the message that they “shouldn’t” feel this way or that their feelings are “wrong” or inappropriate. In other words, we may, without even realizing it, be invalidating their feelings. Examples of invalidating responses include, “It’s not that bad”, “Big girls don’t cry”, or “You’re probably just over-tired”. We could also invalidate a loved one’s emotions through what we do, not just what we say. For example, when we distract a child who’s crying by showing him a shiny new toy.
2. You might be giving them the message that “negative emotions are bad.”
By trying to help our loved ones get rid of their negative emotion as fast as possible, we could be feeding into the false idea that negative emotions are bad. Although negative emotions can be extremely unpleasant, they do serve an important function.
For example, sadness could be telling us that we’ve lost something important, and therefore help us prioritize for the future the things we really care about. Anger, on the other hand, could be telling us that we’re being treated unfairly, and if we don’t take the time to acknowledge the anger and reflect on it, we may not be motivated to make changes to an unhealthy situation.
So, if we quickly try to change our loved ones’ negative emotions, they may not have the opportunity to get the information that the emotion is trying to tell them, and we may be adding to the belief that negative emotions are simply bad and should be shut down ASAP.
3. You might be implying that they can’t handle negative emotions.
Our quick attempts to problem-solve or advice-give could also be inadvertently telling our loved one that they can’t handle their emotions. To be fair, negative emotions are tough to handle. But, if we are able to sit with our emotions, perhaps using some self-soothing strategies while doing so, like deep breathing and imagery, we may find the emotion will run its course without us having to bottle it up or push it away. Being mindful of negative emotions in this way is beneficial because it allows us to process the emotion (see Point 5) and recognize what the emotion is trying to communicate to us (see Point 2). Additionally, sometimes the strategies we use to bottle up or push away emotions cause more suffering, such as numbing through sleep or alcohol, avoiding situations or people, and keeping ourselves excessively busy.
4. It may be more about us than them.
Our attempts to problem-solve the emotion away may be more about our own discomfort than about our loved one’s suffering. In this way, we might not be providing our loved one with the type of support they’re looking for. They may, for example, simply want a listening ear.
5. They may not have the opportunity to process their emotion.
By helping our loved one push away or bottle up their emotion, they might not have the opportunity to process the emotion. Why is processing our emotions important? As mentioned in Point 2, If we push emotions away, or “bottle them up”, we may not be aware of the important information they’re trying to communicate to us (Greenberg, 2002). Also, emotions that get pushed into the background don’t necessarily go away, but might continue to exist as “unfinished business.” The more unfinished emotional business we have, the greater the likelihood these emotions will build up until they essentially “overflow”, resulting in us feeling, for example, an overwhelming amount of emotional pain (Greenberg, 2002). In these types of situations, when we’re overwhelmed with emotion, we may end up lashing out with rage, or falling into deep self-loathing or despair.
6. You may be feeding into their self-critical thoughts.
Blocking negative emotions can make us feel worse about ourselves. To block our negative emotions, we have to tell ourselves things like, “Stop feeling this way!”, “You’re being ridiculous!” “Get over it already!”. Talking to ourselves and judging our emotions in this way can lead to a bunch of other negative emotions (like shame, anger toward ourselves, etc.). So, if you’re helping your loved one block their negative emotion, you could be facilitating their beating themselves up over their emotions
What can we do to “hold space” for our loved one’s difficult emotions, instead of trying to problem-solve, advice-give, or distract them away? What is commonly known as active listening is a great way to simply “hold space” for your loved one’s distress (Weger, Castle Bell, Minei, & Robinson, 2014).
Check out these tips for active listening:
1. Tolerate your own discomfort.
If someone you care about is really distressed and you just want it to stop, take a few long, deep breaths; remind yourself that this will pass and you can still be there for your loved one without making the emotion go away; and remember that, although it’s really difficult, experiencing negative emotions is a necessary part of learning and growing.
2. Communicate attentiveness through your body language.
Make eye contact, nod your head, and use an open, relaxed body posture.
3. Communicate attentiveness through your words.
Use phrases like, “Uh-huh”, “I see”, and “I hear you” to let the person know you’re listening. Reflect back to them what they’re saying (e.g., “It sounds like what you’re saying is you really weren’t expecting this and that makes it even more difficult.”). This will help your loved one feel heard and understood, and will build trust between the two of you.
4. Be a sounding board and reflect back.
Allow your loved one to bounce ideas and feelings off you while assuming a nonjudgmental, non-critical stance. Summarize their experience, what they’re saying and reflect it back to them. This will allow them to feel heard, understood, and will also correct your perception if you’re misunderstanding them.
5. Avoid advice-giving or “teaching” and interrupting.
Advice-giving and “teaching” can potentially lead to the problems discussed above (e.g., invalidation of feelings, not allowing emotions to be processed). If you sense that your loved one is really looking for advice, and you feel it might be helpful, you could always check in with them first before giving advice: “I can help you problem-solve, I can give you some advice, but I’m also happy to just listen.”
6. Invite the person to say more.
For example, "Tell me about it", or "I'd like to hear more about that if you’re comfortable."
7. Be authentic.
If it’s hard for you to relate to what the person is going through, don’t pretend. Instead, you might say something like, “I can’t even imagine what you’re going through right now, but I want you to know I love you and I’m here for you.”
8. Don’t make it about you.
Try not to relate it to your own experience, unless you ask first. It’s natural to want to share a similar experience, as it can allow us to feel more connected to our loved one, and they may even feel less alone. The problem with this is that it could make it more about you than them, and take away from their unique experience, not really allowing them to feel heard. Instead, you might say something like, “I went through something that I think is similar. I can tell you about it if you like.”
I think one of our greatest abilities as humans is our capacity to problem-solve our way out of and “fix” difficult situations. We have probably survived so long because of this skill, which is one reason why we might default to this mode so quickly when someone we care about is struggling. However, as outlined above, there are also plenty of advantages to simply “being with” someone in their distress. I hope you found these tips helpful and can practice them next time someone you care about is sharing their difficulties with you.
Lisa Linardatos is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogs, podcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram, or like us on Facebook.
Greenberg, L. S. (2002). Greenberg Emotion-focused therapy: coaching clients to work through feelings. American Psychological Association Press, Washingoton, DC.
Linehan, M. M. (2014). DBT® skills training manual, second edition. Guilford Publications.
Weger Jr, H., Castle Bell, G., Minei, E. M., & Robinson, M. C. (2014). The relative effectiveness of active listening in initial interactions. International Journal of Listening, 28(1), 13-31.