How to support people in emotional pain

Refuge in Grief
This meme comes from one of my favorite blogs, Refuge in Grief. Megan Devine does an amazing job of providing support for those who are experiencing grief and loss.
How to support people in emotional pain. You want to be a good friend or partner, but it’s easy to feel helpless when you see someone that you love feeling badly.

Sometimes, it’s hard to know what to say. It’s really important, though, to find ways to verbally acknowledge someone’s experience, instead of minimizing it.  Here are some suggestions and alternatives.

As you read through the list, notice what you feel in your body, as you imagine saying them yourself. You’ll know the phrases and pieces that sit well with you by bringing awareness to your body.

2 VERY IMPORTANT rules of thumb:

  • Don’t try to fix and don’t “do”…instead “be with.” The person you are helping isn’t ready or in need of fixing the situation just yet. They may just need to be in their process and eventually find their own way out, while feeling supported and loved. Trust that empathy, compassion and active listening go much further than fixing.*
  • It’s more about how you “be” not what you say.  Be an open-hearted, active listener. Show love and compassion in your gestures, in your eye contact, and in your ability to sit with their pain, and not trying to change it.
  • Silence really is golden. Listening silently, with an open body position can convey so much, without needing to say anything at all.

When it comes to hard times…what NOT to say,
and what to say instead:

1. Look at the bright side (Right now this might be really hard or almost impossible for them to do. And it might feel dismissive of their situation).  Instead, try replacing this with: It must be really difficult to feel like you’re stuck feeling bad with limited options to change your situation. One day, it will shift, but for now I’m sorry you’re having a hard time. I love and care about you. I’m here for you.

2. Snap out of it (If they could, they definitely would! No one wants to feel anxious or depressed). Instead, try replacing this with: I wish there was some way that I could make it better. I’m sorry you’re going through this. I care about you. I’m here for you.

3. Don’t look at it that way (Right now, they would probably like to see it and feel it in some other way, but they can’t right now. It’s not their fault and it often feels like it’s not a choice). Instead, try this: It’s so tough to shift perspective and see that it won’t be like this forever. I care about you. I’m here for you.

4. You don’t have it so bad or “this is no big deal” (Judging or comparing their experience, when you aren’t in their mind and body to know what it feels like to them, can feel alienating and isn’t supportive).  Instead, try this: Ugh. I’m sorry you’re feeling so bad. I care about you. I’m here for you.

5. It’s all in your head (Whether they are imagining their feelings or not, it feels real to them.  It feels overwhelming and probably scary to them.  Telling them that it’s in their head negates their feelings and may make them retreat further).  Instead, try this: Our minds can spin and make us all feel crazy sometimes. Seems like you’re in the thick of it. Please know that no matter what, I care about you. I’m here for you.

6. You’re acting crazy (“Crazy” is derogatory term that doesn’t make anyone feel good.  Chances are, they aren’t acting and they may feel crazy right now.  Saying this to them often will intensify their bad feelings).  Instead, try this: Seems like you’re feelings are on overload. It must be really scary and overwhelming. I care about you. I’m here for you.

7. Get over it (For whatever reason, they aren’t ready right now.  Everyone manages emotional pain differently. Honor their process). Instead, try this: Healing takes time. Everyone heals at his/her own pace. I hope you feel better soon. In the meantime, know that I care about you. I’m here for you.

8. If I were you… (You aren’t them! You don’t know what you would do if you were them, because you aren’t them. Even if you’ve experienced similar circumstances, you aren’t them. Give them the space and empathy to move through the feelings and only offer advice if they ask for it explicitly).  Instead, try this: I can’t know what it’s like to be going through what you are, but it sounds tough. I care about you. I’m here for you.

9. Give it time and you’ll feel differently – or “This too shall pass” (Although this is true, it can be hard to take this in when someone is deep into their feelings).  Things in life can shift quickly, and hopefully they do for you. I’m sorry it’s so hard right now. In the meantime, I care about you. I’m here for you.

10. God never gives us anything we can’t handle (Saying this to someone in pain increase someone’s feelings of being the victim.  Why didn’t god give this to someone else? Why should I have to handle it? Plus, if you don’t know someone’s religious affiliation, it’s better to stay away from using god in supporting someone emotionally).  Instead, try this: It’s not fair and it totally stinks that you are in pain. I wish you didn’t have to endure this. I care about you. I’m here for you.

11. Don’t think about it (It  would be great if they could stop thinking about what’s bothering them or stop feeling sad, but saying this can make them feel like a failure if they can’t stop thinking about it.  Also, it’s not always our thoughts that are to blame for how we feel, so maybe there are no thoughts to turn off, but a general feeling of sadness or anxiety).  Instead, try this: It’s so hard to stop thinking about things and take a break from feeling what you feel. Is there something you can do to distract yourself for a few minutes from the pain? I care about you. I’m here for you.

12. If you keep stressing like this, you’re going to die of a heart attack (It’s true that stress can cause physical ailments, like heart attacks.  However if they are already feeling stressed and you say this, it can increase their stress – since, of course, no one wants to have heart attack!).  Instead, try this: You have a lot on your plate right now. I can see how it’s so hard to manage. I’m concerned about you and the impact of the level of stress you’re experiencing. I care about you. I’m here for you.

13. What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger (This is a great adage for after the pain has ended and someone is feeling better…it’s a way of acknowledging what they’ve been through and how they can use it to recognize their resilience. However, in the midst of the pain, they are feeling really bad and they just need to be heard and acknowledged for how they feel now).  Instead, try this: It’s hard to be a human being. I’m so sorry that you are having a hard time. I hope one day, you can look back on this and see it as a good thing, but for now it really stinks. I care about you. I’m here for you.

13. You’ll laugh about this later (Maybe they will and maybe they won’t, but statements like this negate how they are feeling NOW.).  Instead, try this: I know this feels so big and unmanageable right now. I know it’s hard to be going through it. Hang in there. I care about you. I’m here for you.

14. If I can overcome X, than you can get over this (Their challenge and how they are dealing with it has nothing to do with you or how you have managed your challenges. We all respond differently to different things. Make it about them, not you.) Instead, try this: I hear that you are struggling right now. Going through hard times isn’t fun. I care about you. I’m here for you. 

In essence – Acknowledge their experience, instead of negating it.  Let them know, not just with your actions, but with your words “I’m on your side. I’m here for you. I can’t know what it’s like to be you or to undergo what you are experiencing. You aren’t alone. I love/care about you.”

*VERY IMPORTANT NOTE: If the person is a danger to themselves or plans to cause harm another person/people, it’s vital to continue show empathy, but to also take a firm stance in getting them to the hospital immediately. If they refuse to go, know that the absolute most loving, caring and empathic thing you can do is to call 911. If you aren’t sure, always err on the side of caution and make the call!

What’s most helpful to you when you’re having a hard time? I’d love to hear about it…send me a note and let me know…thanks!

P.S. The fact that you care and you listen goes a very long way.