Know when someone needs you to listen
Life can be incredibly painful at times. Everyone experiences times of struggle; some seem to have more strife than others.
When it all seems too much, most of us are just looking for someone who understands how to sit with us in our pain. We need a person to hear what we have to say, someone to listen. Yes, prayers are important and I'm not suggesting that we stop praying for one another.
What I am suggesting is that when a friend comes to us in obvious distress, that “I'll pray for you” might not be what they are needing from us in that moment. Prayers are always welcomed, but when a friend empties their heart out to us, what they need in that moment is someone to listen to them. Someone who can be there for them. You see, prayer doesn't take the place of action.
My friend who just had her 3rd surgery in as many months not only wants my prayer, she wants my help! If nothing else, she wants empathy.
Why is sitting with someone in their pain so hard?
My therapist and I have discussed this on multiple occasions.
Sitting with someone who is in pain, whether physical or emotional is not an easy thing to do. It can make us feel very uncomfortable. Our first instinct is to:
- try to fix the situation
- make assumptions about what is going on
- minimize what the person is going through
- make the problem about ourselves by telling our stories
- invalidate the person by suggesting they are making too much out of a situation
- asking the question “is there anything I can do” which can be overwhelming
There's nothing inherently wrong with asking, “Is there anything I can do” when someone opens up to you about their pain. Sometimes though, this question can put the burden back on the person in need. It is burdensome because in addition to trying to work through a difficult problem; now they need to figure out what they need from you.
It's hard to ASK for specific help, even when you know what you need. Although, when we are dealing with painful emotions, many of us have no idea what help we might ask for.
Dr. J pointed out that at times this question can be helpful. For example, asking “How can I help?” often allows the other person enough space to explore what they are feeling long enough to determine what they need. She explained that our emotions give us information and ignoring our feelings keeps us from discovering what we need.
If you know you can be of help consider suggesting something you are capable of doing. For example, “I'm taking my kids to the park, let me come by and take yours too.” One of my favorite is, “let me pick you up and let's go to coffee so I can give you my full attention.”
My experience is not your experience
Here's a response I have been guilty of but one on which I am working diligently: making the situation about you instead of them. I used to think that this was a good way to commiserate with someone.
For example, a friend is going through a trial with her teenager; my response used to be to share a similar parenting woe from my experiences as a means to offer empathy. Not always helpful. Now I remind myself, this is about her not me! Learning to listen takes practice.
Not to discount our own experiences, there are times when it could be beneficial to express our empathy by sharing our own stories. When I talked to Dr. J about this, she made this suggestion, “before you share an experience, ask yourself is this going to be helpful or is this about me.”
It's not that we don't care about the other person, we just want to hurry and make it better! Sometimes we just need to focus on the other person's unique experience. Allowing them to open up about how they feel can help them tremendously. Many times all we need to do is listen.
Other things we might say to a friend in need include:
“how did that make you feel?”
“what are your thoughts about that situation.”
“I'll listen if you'd like to share how you are feeling today.”
“I'm sorry you are hurting.”
“You've been through a lot.”
“I love you, and I am here for you.”
It's best to resist the impulse to compare their situation to someone else's similar experience. If you have ever shared a painful event with a friend only to have them tell you about someone else's worse experience you know what I mean. This can be very invalidating.
If you don't know what to say, there's no shame in admitting it! Don't stay silent, which can give the perception of disinterest. Simply say, “I wish I knew what to say right now.”
The problem with “Be positive!”
Another way we often respond is to invalidate the other person's experience, “You're overreacting,” “it's not that bad” or “stay positive.” Comments like this insinuate the person is making a mountain out of a molehill which just adds to the pain they were dealing with in the first place.
Yes, having a positive attitude or outlook on life is certainly preferable, but reminding a friend of this when they are down will not cause the person to have a sudden change of heart.
Often we use clichés like, “be positive” or “chin up” when we can't deal with other people's emotions, they make us feel uncomfortable, or we just don't know what to say or do. These phrases do not convert pessimists into optimists.
Forced positive thinking can have an unfavorable effect on a person's emotional well-being. The pressure to “be positive” can be overwhelming. In fact, clichés like these often make a troubled person feel like they are failing. On top of the problem, now they feel guilty for not being more positive.
Let us learn to choose our words carefully
Proverbs 25:11 says, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.” Basically – words spoken at the right time are as good as gold apples in a silver setting. In other words, saying the right thing at the right time in the right place to the right person.
That's a tall order but one that we can remember with this acronym based on Proverbs 25:11. When we respond to others remember to apply APPLES:
A – Appropriate
P – Pleasant
P – Pure
L – Lovely
E – Encouraging
S – Soft
It can certainly be awkward to sit with a friend in their pain, especially if we also have a hard time dealing with our own emotions.
Many people choose not to ask for help when they need it. So it is important to for us to reach out to support the people around us in life who are hurting. The best thing we can do is just to acknowledge that we know they are having a hard time and to let them know we are there. Just letting them know you care about them will be a comfort! Prov. 16:24, “Pleasant words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the bones.”
When you find yourself in a position of being a sounding board for someone in pain, try to:
- Realize that your first priority is to listen.
- Come to the conversation with the other person's well-being in mind and leave your baggage behind.
- Restate what your friend has told you to make sure you are following, “What I'm hearing is your mom's actions hurt you.”
- Ask thinking questions to help you both understand the situation better, “so how do you feel about the way your mom responded when you told her how you felt?”
- Validate their feelings, “Having your mom react that way seems to have made things worse.”
- Don't try to fix it. My sister-in-law taught me this technique. When she just wants to vent to her husband, she prefaces her conversation with, “I don't want you to fix this; I just need to get it off my chest.” Saying this lets him know upfront what she needs/expects as opposed to him trying to figure it out as she explains it to him. Often, when a friend wants to vent to us, it can be helpful to ask up front. If you are just venting, it can help to let the listener know that upfront.
Being more self-aware can help us be there for our friends
Some words I used in the past that I make an effort not to use with myself and others:
Should – When directed towards myself “should” led to frustration and a huge guilt trip. When used against others, “should” leads to anger and resentment.
Always – An all or nothing word used to force feed our point to another. Using the word “always” in an accusation destroys trust.
Never – Like always, “never” is a word that is used to create a negative absolute and is rarely accurate. “Never” is a word that adds fuel to the fire.
In the past, using these words kept me mired in my bad situation, they distorted my thinking and kept me feeling powerless. These words helped me accuse myself instead of allowing me to come up with a viable solution for my problems.
I don't want to use those words with others. Working to avoid these words has helped me to become more self-aware. Also, this is not easy, sometimes I listen to my thoughts or even the words I speak and realize I still have a long way to go.
Feel what you feel; let others feel what they feel
We need to let people have their own emotions. When we try to tell people that what they are feeling is wrong, we shut them down. Trying to convince someone not to feel what they feel is counterproductive and might destroy the relationship.
This also applies to how you treat yourself when it comes to your own feelings. It has been work to stop judging myself for my emotions. It's bad enough to deal with the emotion itself but then to have the follow-up emotion triggered by self-judgment left me feeling overwhelmed.
People need to be allowed to feel what they feel. Fighting against feelings can lead to more suffering. Instead of suppressing feelings, observe them, learn from them. Many times what we learned to believe about our emotions in childhood continues to propel our attitude toward our emotions in adulthood.
Having a therapist who can help you explore where your beliefs about your emotions are coming from can help you decrease your self-judgment. Learning to validate my emotions has helped me to have fewer “straw that broke the camels' back” type of meltdowns.
Healthy Habits to Create Balance
Some other things that we can do to help others and ourselves is to create healthy habits that contribute to our emotional stability. These might include:
- Get quality sleep consistently
- Exercise regularly (even taking a daily walk)
- Avoid using drugs and alcohol to numb our feelings
- Eat a well-balanced diet full of fresh whole foods
- Talk to a licensed therapist when you need help coping with life. If I had known how helpful my Psychologist would be, I would have started seeing her decades ago!
- Prayer – praying for family and friends is a beautiful thing to do. I want my friends to know I do pray for them, but I also want them to know that I will pray WITH them and I will listen when they need me to.
If you feel you could benefit from a group of encouraging women who are willing to listen, I'd like to invite you to join us over at Hopelively. Hopelively is a private community for women seeking encouragement in their wellness pursuits. Our goal is to promote a spirit of hope in the midst of struggles, both physical and spiritual.