Whether you believe it was due to the alignment of the stars, the wrath of a vengeful god, or just sheer dumb luck, 2019 was a rough year for a lot of people. Understandably, a lot of us are feeling a little disappointed by the last year (even while feeling hopeful for what 2020 holds) and may be nursing some residual blues. What’s important to remember is that even when we feel hopelessly miserable, we are not the only ones experiencing it. The friend who always turns up with a smile may just be too afraid to talk about the struggles in their life because of the way their friends and family members respond when they do let the façade slip. But sharing with the people close to us is important and healing, so here are some things to keep in mind through 2020 when speaking to someone who’s going through a hard time. It might just make those interactions a lot more meaningful.
1. Stop telling them “It happened for a reason”
Unless you know that you’re talking to the kind of person who firmly believes their life is following a pre-determined plan set out before their birth by God/Gaia/mythical Norse figures spinning the threads of their fate, this is NOT going to make them feel better. Telling someone in pain that they’re hurting simply because they’re destined to be hurting at this moment is a sure way to make them feel like you’re disregarding their pain as just another life thing. After hearing “Maybe this is where you’re supposed to be right now” enough times, that person is not going to want to share their feelings with you anymore, and it’s a sure-fire way to create distance in your relationship.
2. Stop expressing pity.
Nobody likes to feel helpless. Nobody likes to feel weak. Nobody likes to feel like a burden. This one’s a tough one, because often when we respond with “aww, poor you” we’re trying to show that we care about them and we sympathise. This usually backfires, however, and comes across as condescending. It can often make the person we care about feel like we’re looking down on them because of the emotional burden they’re carrying, and this has the potential to make that burden feel a lot heavier.
3. Stop psychoanalysing them, unless you’re actually being paid (by them) to do so (and are a trained professional).
Presuming to know the answers to another person’s problems is to presume to understand their feelings. Every person approaches situations differently and feels differently about them, and therefore every pain is unique. Trying to tell someone why they feel a certain way (and perhaps why they shouldn’t feel that way) is making the assumption that you can understand their exact brand of sadness/anxiety/loneliness, and it’s risky because chances are you can’t. Again, here we’re often trying to give well-intentioned advice which we think can help our loved ones, or at least make them feel better, but usually the advice we give just leaves them feeling unheard and misunderstood.
4. Stop telling them they’ll get over it.
Most likely, they KNOW they’ll get over it. One day in the distant future, they realise they probably won’t still feel this way. What you need to understand (and remember, from the times you’ve felt the same way) is that in that moment, when you’re really hurting, that future feels REALLY far away. It’s impossible to look up and ahead at a bright, shiny future when the weight of your sadness of dragging you downward. Just knowing that one day in six months’ time you’ll feel better doesn’t necessarily have the effect of making you feel better right now. Human beings are not robots that come equipped with “happy” and “sad” switches that can be turned on and off. Telling someone their pain is only temporary, does not lessen the duration of that pain, no matter how well-intentioned you’re trying to be about it.
So, what can we do when someone we love is going through a difficult time?
The answer is simply: LISTEN.
Really, it sounds easier than it is.
In the words of Psychologist Carl Rogers, “When someone really hears you without passing judgment on you, without trying to take responsibility for you, without trying to mold you, it feels damn good!”
According to the Gottman Institute (and if you’re looking to build meaningful and lasting relationships with anyone, it’s worth reading some of their research) one of the deepest needs within all human beings is to feel we’re being understood, and this is impossible without empathy. Relationship Coach, Kyle Benson writes that empathising comes easily when our loved ones are happy, but that it’s far harder when they’re hurt, angry, or sad.
He adds that, “Since we care about them, we try to help minimize their feelings because we know that they are difficult, but sympathizing can be damaging despite positive intentions.”
We sympathise by casting a silver lining around the emotional dark cloud as in the examples mentioned above, but this ultimately invalidates that dark cloud and the emotions it contains. If it’s hard to understand why they’re feeling the way they are, ask questions and really listen to their answers.
Really listening to what someone is saying about their pain leads to empathy, a SHARING of their feelings rather than just an observation of them from afar. It means joining them under that dark cloud for a while, and showing support and real understanding. It’s not always easy, and it’s not always fun, but it will definitely be appreciated and help to foster an even deeper relationship between the two of you.
According to Benson, empathy takes practice, but it’s a skill worth having, and will help us all improve our relationships with the people around us. To sum up is advice : “Instead of trying to change or fix the feelings of the person you love, focus on connecting with them”.
So here’s to 2020, a new year (a new decade, even!) in which to foster long-lasting, meaningful relationships with family, friends, and partners. Whether you believe in gods, or destiny or the flying spaghetti monster, it’s always a good thing to spread love and understanding with those close to us, in good times and in bad
(But 2020 is going to be a good one. Wait and see.).