Stop Trying to Fix People and Just Be There For Them
Why is it so hard to allow people to struggle with difficult emotions?
When was the last time you shared a struggle, a fear or a secret shame with someone and they sat with you and said, “That must be really hard. Tell me how that is for you” and then they really listened? I’ll bet you were sitting in your therapist’s office because the rest of us suck at just being a witness to others’ pain without trying to fix it for them.
Now think of the last time someone shared something with you, and in an effort to relieve your discomfort with their sadness/anger/grief, you glossed it over and tried to point out why they shouldn’t feel that way, or you gave them some simplistic answer for fixing it?
We all do it and I am no exception. Why do we do this? One of the reasons is most of us received the message when we were little that strong emotions are (fill in the blank) scary-dangerous-bad-disrespectful-weak-wrong. We are not comfortable with our own strong emotions so when someone else displays or shares their deep feelings we don’t know what to do with that. We have no experience dealing with emotional states that are not deemed acceptable. So this is what we do:
- We try to talk them out of feeling what they are feeling, because that is what we do to ourselves.
- We tell them that they have no right to feel that way, because that is what we do to ourselves.
- We try to get them to snap out of it, because that is what we do to ourselves.
So when a friend comes to us and shares their feelings about something that has gone wrong in their lives the first thing we want to do is fix it for them so they will stop feeling that way. Dr. Nicole LePera, a holistic psychologist, says, “We learned to do this as children when we were talked out of what we felt — “it’s not a big deal” or “don’t be so dramatic” were ways that adults (attempted) to make us feel better. Not understanding this invalidated our experience.” She says we do this to others because that is what was modeled for us. And it’s what we have learned to do to ourselves.
The thing is, what most of us want is permission to feel whatever we feel.
I grew up in a house where we were not allowed to express anger, displeasure, frustration or any other “bad” emotions without repercussions. My father often told us if we didn’t stop crying he would give us something to cry about. The implication was that what made us cry in the first place was not a legitimate feeling so we were crying over nothing. This infraction would often result in a spanking.
Is it any wonder we cannot, as adults, deal with strong emotions — either ours or other people’s? Most of us are walking around like boiling cauldrons of unexpressed and unacknowledged feelings. This is a recipe for disaster. I know that in my past, there were times that I exploded, leaving a wake of damage in my relationships, especially with my children. Having no pressure release valve for my feelings I kept them shoved under until the pressure was too great and I blew up.
When we tell people to just “get over it” or we give them some pat prescription to fix their feelings and feel better, we are failing to give them permission to feel bad. The thing is, what most of us want is permission to feel whatever we feel. There is a saying that ‘what we resist persists’ and that goes for all those hurts, fears, disappointments and shame that we have tried not to feel throughout our lives.
How many times have you heard an older person repeat, for the millionth time, a story about something that happened to them 40 years ago when someone offended them or hurt them in some way. The reason they can’t let it go is that they have never truly acknowledged the depth of their feelings about that incident. And most likely, there were feelings beneath those feelings from an even earlier incident that were also not acknowledged. They have not allowed themselves to feel any of it, and therefore, the feelings are still hanging around waiting to be acknowledged. Maybe you can relate to this, too.
Think how much healing there is in the words, “Wow. That sounds really hard. Tell me about that.” If only we could do this for each other the world would start to heal. But we also have to learn to do it for ourselves. Whenever we are experiencing any strong emotion, especially ones that scare us, what if we could lay a hand on our heart and say “This is a moment of suffering. I know this is hard, sweetheart. Tell me about what you are feeling.”
This may seem silly, but self-compassion will go a long way toward helping us learn to be with difficult emotions, both ours and others’. In my experience, once I acknowledge them and name them out loud they begin to fade. Or at least they seem more manageable. What a gift to give ourselves and those we care about.
So the next time someone is having a bad day or is experiencing a strong emotion that makes you squirm inside, slow yourself down, make a conscious choice to be still and quiet, and allow the person to share the full range of their experience. Ask them to share more. Listen without interrupting or without the need to fix things for them. Understand that most people already know what they need to do to fix their situation. What they need is time to process their feelings and that’s where you come in.
Know that this will take a lifetime of practice to learn to do well. That’s ok. It will transform your relationships and transform your relationship with yourself. It’s worth the effort.