A producer friend I’ll call Ruth was getting ready to renew the business insurance for Don, a loyal and long-standing client of hers.
This isn’t one of those horror stories about losing an important account or the hardball tactics competitors might try to win business.
It’s actually about how you can help someone in serious emotional pain even when you haven’t a clue what to do.
Ruth was on the phone with Don’s assistant setting up the renewal meeting. Towards the end of the call, Don’s assistant lowered her voice, and let Ruth know that her boss was having a real tough time emotionally.
After 32 years of marriage, he was going through a divisive divorce, which was taking its toll on the whole family, as well as his business and his health.
For months Don had been undergoing tests for a still-unidentified illness impacting both his speech and mobility. His whole world seemed to be crumbling, and it was clear, his assistant said, that he was struggling profoundly.
Thinking about the upcoming meeting with Don, Ruth’s stomach was churning. She felt genuinely bad for Don and his family, and wanted to be supportive, but she had no idea what she could say or do to help.
She was worried that she’d only end up making things worse.
But that was before she spoke with a friend who volunteered at a local hospice. He knew a lot about helping people deal with emotional pain, and gave her five ways she could be of service to Don (or anyone else who was down and distraught).
Sooner or later, we’re with people who are suffering and we don’t know what we can do to be of help.
Your story may be quite different from Ruth’s. Maybe it’s your teenage daughter, college roommate, or best buddy who unexpectedly faces some extreme challenges that you can’t fix with money, time, or material resources.
In times of real hardship, people’s needs can be very simple. And expressing our fundamental human connection with others is often all that’s required.
Here are Ruth’s friend’s five ways to help:
Reflect back their basic fulfilled self – not their want and need
Emotional suffering can make people feel defeated and worthless. But no matter what they’re currently facing, everyone has a deep, intrinsic sense of worthiness.
The problem is that when someone’s suffering emotionally they tend to identify with what’s wrong instead of with their underlying healthy self.
Your non-judgmental, confident presence sends a valuable message of acceptance that helps shift their focus from self-hating to appreciation of their basic goodness and worth.
Wanting someone else to understand and acknowledge our feelings, thoughts, and moods is an innate human need. It’s an expression of our interconnectedness.
When you spend time with someone as an unbiased listener, taking in their fears, sadness, and heartbreak, you show them they’re not alone.
And when you’re able to share someone’s suffering without being overwhelmed by it, it gives them the confidence they too can take their pain in stride.
Let them know the story they might be telling themselves is not the only way to experience things
I don’t mean to imply for a second there isn’t real suffering going on. When things fall apart we can feel desperate and alone. But we can also make things worse for ourselves by ruminating, dwelling obsessively on the bad stuff and the imagined causes. These thoughts fuel more negative feelings, and that can lead to serious depression and further bad consequences.
I saw a girl speeding downhill on her bike fall and slide along the rough pavement. She burst out crying, but she wasn’t so much hurt physically as she was anxious that she might have been. Simply saying, “You’re OK. You just skinned your elbows and knees. It’s gonna heal quickly,” did a lot to help her relax.
Don’t try to fix everything
Everyone wants to avoid pain, whether it’s our own or someone else’s. Our urgent desire to fix things – “I’ve got a great doctor, a great lawyer, have you tried this remedy?” – is frequently about wanting to get rid of our own uneasiness.
The simple power of empathy comes from being present with someone, feeling what they are feeling and showing them that you understand. By accepting what the other person is experiencing, instead of immediately trying to fix it, we help them relax.
Name it to tame it
The problems people face aren’t always life or death upheavals, but to the person suffering, they can feel that way.
Suppose your teenage daughter Sarah is freaked. She tells you a long story about the social conflicts at school and how lonesome she is.
Neuroscientist and New York Times bestselling author Dan Siegel offers this insightful approach:
When we can put a name on what’s bothering us, we engage higher cognition brain functions that shift attention from the emotional brain’s worry and anxiety.
“What is it you’re feeling about this?” you can ask, and let her name it.
After a bit she might tell you, “I’m afraid no one will sit with me in the cafeteria tomorrow.”
Amazingly, as a result of simply defining the emotional experience – “I’m feeling afraid” – the brain’s language center in the left frontal cortex sends soothing neurotransmitters to the emotional brain’s limbic system that calm the agitation, so that Sarah relaxes and feels less anxious.
Have some of your own experiences you’d like to share, or other ideas about ways to help? Let us know in the comments below, and if you know friends and colleagues who might appreciate it, pass it along.