Kathy’s friend Laurie breaks down in deep sobs while sharing that her favorite aunt has recently passed away. Kathy looks at her friend, “speechless” and “paralyzed,” not knowing what to say or do. In this moment, Kathy wants so much to “make it better,” but fears that anything she says will be the “wrong” thing and will make Laurie feel worse.
Maria’s husband Zollie relays that his brother has decided to permanently “cut him off,” after years of trying to rebuild their relationship. Zollie sits sullenly at the dinner table, while Maria acts encouraging and says “well at least you still have me and the kids.” Zollie is left feeling that Maria clearly does not understand the hurt he feels from his brother’s rejection.
What’s similar in these situations? Both Laurie and Zollie are experiencing emotional pain. More specifically, Laurie is feeling sad at the loss of her aunt and Zollie is feeling sad and hurt regarding his brother ending their relationship. And both Kathy and Maria are struggling with how best to respond.
These scenarios are fairly common when dealing with someone we are close to who is in emotional pain. Although it can often be very difficult for others to even let us know when they are in pain (because of how vulnerable it can feel to share and show sadness/tears), it can be equally difficult to know how to respond when someone does. There is often a fear of saying the wrong thing which paralyzes us from saying anything at all. Ironically, this might worsen the situation, in that the person in distress may translate our silences as a sense of not caring. Other times, we may “problem solve” and provide a “solution” to help “fix” the problem. An example would be Kathy suggesting that Laurie distract herself to get away from her grief. A further tactic is to become overly optimistic, as Maria does by encouraging her husband to “look on the bright side.”
Although problem solving and remaining optimistic can be helpful at times, these strategies may not be what is initially needed. These strategies may leave the other person feeling that you don’t realize the depth of their pain and that you view their pain as a “quick fix,” rather than recognizing the time needed for them to heal. Consequently, this may leave the other feeling minimized and more alone in their situation, which can ironically (and inadvertently) add to their pain.
So, what can be most helpful to the other person when they show emotional pain? Actually, showing a sense of empathy can be incredibly supportive. When we show empathy, we are envisioning what it would be like to be in that person’s shoes (even if we are not) and giving the person a shared sense of “being with them” as they are going through this painful experience. This does not mean “taking on” their pain or being responsible for what they are going through. Nor does it mean that we are pitying them or feeling sorry for them. Rather, it conveys that “we are with them in our heart” as they are going through their difficult time and that we see their pain as important and valid. Examples of empathic statements might be “I get how difficult this loss must be” or “I feel and understand your pain.” or “I understand how much this must hurt.” This, in turn, gives the person a deep sense of feeling understood and that they are no longer completely alone in their pain. Although this does not “solve” the painful issue, it can be very healing and soothing for another human being to know that their pain is being taken seriously; additionally, the experience of feeling less alone in one’s situation can be very healing in itself.
So, why is it difficult to truly “emotionally be there” for another person? First of all, we may feel “helpless” when we see others in pain, desperately wanting to help them feel better and therefore offering a quick solution or uplifting response. Additionally, during childhood, many of us learned to “ignore,” “solve,” or “be positive” with our own vulnerable feelings; therefore, it can be foreign to know how to respond to others any differently than how we respond to our own pain. Along these lines, we may want to “move away” from our friend’s pain, as it stirs up difficult and unresolved feelings (that have been tucked away) about our own previous hurts and losses.
However, there are substantial benefits when we are able to be emotionally there for another person. We not only provide a “healing” for the other person, but it can give us a good feeling to know that we are truly helping someone close to us. Overall, “being there” can lead to a much deeper sense of connection and closeness in the relationship, which ultimately may lead to the development of deeper, richer, and more long lasting relationships in one’s life.