I’ve been going to therapy.
Look at me, starting this post off strong! But seriously, I’ve been talking with a mental health counselor for the past year and well, I’m proud of it. Although I rarely want to go when the actual appointment arrives and often leave the appointment feeling pretty drained, I’m learning a lot about myself and more importantly, about others.
The topic of conversation this week was how friends, family and people in general don’t always give you what you need when you’re suffering. And that isn’t their fault. They are not experts on trauma or licensed counselors, as much as I wish they were.
It’s a lonely feeling when people can’t give you what you need. It’s an even lonelier feeling to be more insecure after confiding in someone than if you held it in. I think we’ve all been there before – and it is the worst.
While learning about my own needs this week, I also learned how I can be more helpful to friends in need. I feel more confident and comfortable about how to approach these situations and take my own feelings of insecurity out of the equation when it comes to responding. It’s already been effective in my life so I wanted to share it with you all. I’m going to go off my own experiences to put this in perspective.
I’ve been told many times “you can’t think that way” after sharing my internal struggle with depression. I’ve been endlessly reminded over the last five years of all the things I’m doing wrong as I cope with chronic pain and illness: “You have to be more positive”, “You don’t know that for sure though!” and “Be strong” are all common feedbacks. I truly believe the people giving this information had good intentions, even though it hurt me badly and was the last thing I needed to hear. In fact, all this advice just fed my self belief that I’m a problem, I’m not good enough, and I’m not dealing with or controlling the situation in the right way.
When someone we love comes to us with a problem, it’s our nature to want to fix the problem. People try so hard to fix problems for their own ego, because they are just as worried about letting you down or insecure of not being helpful. But the truth is, they can’t fix it. And it only hurts the sufferer more to try. We can’t fix anyone’s problems, but we can make them feel a little lighter.
When someone is hurting, what they truly need is to be validated. The most valuable thing I learned in therapy this year is that when a person’s emotions are running high, they can’t hear logic. You have to meet them where they are first and acknowledge their feelings before logic is of any use.
Here are some examples:
Sufferer: “I am scared for my future with chronic illness. Especially how it will affect my business and marriage if my pain continues. This long journey of trying to get better and being let down really weighs on me.”
Helper: “Well, you can’t think that way! It may not get worse. You don’t know that for sure! Just try your best to stay positive.”
What the sufferer hears: You’re thinking all wrong. Your feelings are not valid. You’re not feeling the right things.
Some perspective: This response probably gave the sufferer the idea that they are not safe to open up without judgement. When someone reaches out for help, they are doing it because they know something is wrong and they are in a dark place. And that takes real courage – no matter how open the person may be. Oftentimes, the person hurting knows that their critical thinking is clouded by sadness, and that’s why they are opening up to you for support and love. They know they shouldn’t think that way, but at the moment it might not feel possible to change that.
An example of a more helpful scenario to the sufferer:
Sufferer: “I am scared for my future with chronic illness, especially how it will affect my marriage and business if my pain continues. This long journey of trying to get better and being let down has really been weighing on me.”
Helper: “That must feel really scary and lonely…It’s understandable you feel this way and it’s OK to be hurting with all this going on. I care and I’m here for you.”
What the sufferer hears: It’s OK and normal to feel this way. You’re feelings and thoughts are valid. You’re good enough, even though right now it doesn’t feel that way.
Some perspective: When feelings are validated, it takes away the fear of judgement. The person suffering feels safe opening up and less lonely.
Give this an honest try next time a loved one reaches out with a problem or if they are struggling with a situation. Being more mindful of how we can help others is so important – not only for the sufferer but for the helper! It’s frustrating when you feel like you aren’t saying the right thing, even though you want to help someone so badly. This technique really gives them the comfort they need, and you can feel good knowing that you gave them validation and a safe place to open up.