The Right Way to Respond When People Talk About Their Feelings
Have you ever confided in a friend or family member about something upsetting, only to walk away from the conversation feeling worse than at the outset? I know I have. I can’t count the number of times I’ve tried to express my feelings about a particular situation to friends or family members and have received solutions in return. Or, worse, I’ve been told I shouldn’t feel the way I do.
This topic has come up for me a lot lately, so I thought it would make a timely blog post. Despite the fact that I, too, am guilty of at times responding by suggesting possible solutions when loved ones tell me about their problems, I can say with certainty: it is the wrong approach. And telling someone you care about, or anyone for that matter, they should feel differently in a given situation is not only injurious but insulting as well. I might even go so far as to wager that, more often than not, these types of responses backfire and produce the opposite of the intended result—they make us feel worse, not better.
Let me illustrate with an example. I distinctly recall a time several years ago when I was trying to explain how feeling depressed affected my ability to function at times. The person to whom I was speaking responded: “but you have no reason to be depressed!” They then proceeded to point out to me all the ways my life was great and why I shouldn’t feel sad. This person entirely missed the point—-I already knew the reasons my life was great, but I felt sad despite them. (That’s a part of what distinguishes depression from normal sadness—the lack of reason. It’s the same with anxiety, too—the fears are irrational, but they persist nonetheless.) I truly believe this person meant well and thought their comments were helpful. However, my sadness deepened after that conversation; not only was I not understood, but they had unintentionally reinforced the idea that there really was something wrong with me! After all, why else would someone be sad without reason?
This type of experience is all too common. Well-meaning people, who I imagine must think they’re being helpful or inspiring, feel compelled to point out all the reasons you’re wrong, as if this is new information or those things had never occurred to you before. If you could just realize how fortunate you are, or that others have it so much worse, it would somehow erase or quash whatever negative experience you’ve just had. I understand the temptation to go this route; really, I do. I have done it many times, and even though I know better now, it is often my first reaction when listening to a friend.
The fact of the matter is, though, most of us just want to be heard and understood. We need to feel validated before we can move on to figure out a solution; and, most of the time, we can figure out the solution or adjust our thinking on our own (I’ll come back to this point later in the post). To illustrate, let me trot out a classic example, which you have probably heard if you ever took a Psychology 101 class in college. For the next five minutes, I want you to try not to think about pink elephants. Think about anything else you want, but don’t think about pink elephants. Ready? Set. Go!
(Cue the Jeopardy! music)
How long did you make it before the image of a pink elephant popped into your mind? My guess is: not very long. Inevitably, the pink elephant will force its way into your thoughts. Psychologists call this an “intrusive thought” because of the way it invades your consciousness despite your best efforts to avoid it. There is a trick to the pink elephant exercise, though: you must start by picturing the pink elephant. We need to address that image before we can let it go; otherwise, it haunts us.
In much the same way, we need others to be our cheerleaders, to say “ugh, it sucks that your boss took her anger out on you! You must feel so hurt and frustrated!” We need our confidants to help us acknowledge the emotions we feel before we can ever get to the logical thinking behind problem solving. We are all intelligent people, perfectly capable of identifying possible courses of action without any outside help. And, most likely, we have already thought of and dismissed them because we know the myriad reasons they won’t work for us. Solutions are not what we need; understanding is!
Imagine, for a moment, you are trying to explain the difference between lemons and limes to someone. Lemons are yellow and limes are green, you might say. If that person doesn’t seem to be understanding your explanation, what do you do? You try to explain the difference again, maybe in a slightly different way—lemons are larger than limes. And, if that person is still not getting it, you would probably try to explain yet again in another different way—both are acidic, but lemons have a sour flavor and limes are bitter (unless that person is a two-year-old who insists, in all seriousness, that “it’s a lemon” when it’s really a lime, at which point you must simply give in and say “yep, it’s a lemon; I guess I was wrong!”).
The point is: when we don’t feel understood, we keep explaining. It does no good to try to move on, because we are still hung up on the explanation part. I am really not going to trust that you can serve me a classic margarita or a lemon meringue pie or a cup of earl grey tea with honey and lemon if you don’t seem to grasp the difference between the two citrus fruits. Likewise, why would I trust your solutions if you don’t seem to understand my experience of the situation?
This is one of the primary reasons talking to a therapist is different and often more beneficial than talking to a friend. One of the cornerstones of effective therapy and the first thing we learned in my graduate school clinical skills course was how to build rapport with clients through empathetic listening. We spent a long, long time practicing this skill, which involves conveying an understanding of the situation and its associated emotions, both voiced and underlying, back to the speaker.
Some people are naturally better at this than others, but it is a skill that can be learned and honed, just like any other skill. I have always found it challenging and unnatural, which means it takes conscious effort for me to stifle my initial inclinations (don’t try to solve, identify the emotions), and is a major reason I could never be a therapist. I have one friend in particular, though, who is really excellent at this type of listening and responding. I don’t know if it’s an innate ability, because she’s a teacher, or some combination of both, but I always feel heard and understood when we talk. She identifies my feelings and reflects them back to me, even if I haven’t explicitly said how I feel. She asks the type of questions that make me reflect on and, at times, re-frame the situation, but I never feel judgment from her, no matter how ridiculous my reaction may be.
Therapists don’t solve other people’s problems; instead, therapists help people understand and process their emotional response to a particular situation (or situations) so they can arrive at their own solutions. In fact, changes we devise and implement of our own accord are much more likely to be successful than any suggestion from an outside source because those changes come from a place of insight and true desire. No external voice can ever give you that. Only you can control your own mind. (Anyone else remember those billboards and TV commercials with Smokey Bear saying “only YOU can prevent forest fires”? No? Just me? I digress.)
So, how can you be a better, more helpful friend or confidant? Learn how to become an empathetic listener, which starts with being an active listener. If you are already thinking about what you’re going to say next while your conversation partner is still speaking, then you are not truly listening! How should you respond when someone confides in you about a situation where they felt especially angry/sad/frustrated/anxious/afraid/hopeless/[insert emotion here]? Don’t judge, but try to understand. Ask clarifying, open-ended questions,* and really try your best to put yourself in that situation in that person’s frame of mind. Read that again. The critical piece is stepping beyond your own experience to really see things from the other person’s point of view. This takes practice, but it makes a world of difference, and it will absolutely make you a better friend.
And, whatever you do, never (I can’t stress this enough) never invalidate the other person’s emotions. Don’t tell others how they should feel or imply that someone’s feelings are wrong—nothing will shut down a conversation faster. If that statement triggers you or makes you want to yell “but, but, but!” at the screen, check that you are not confusing validating someone’s emotional experience with condoning their emotional response. You don’t need to agree with someone’s feelings to acknowledge them. All emotions are valid simply by virtue of comprising someone’s response to an event, regardless of whether you think they’re productive or “correct” (whatever that means). After all, I am the only one who has lived my own life. I am the sole expert on my own experience.
So listen to me. Understand me. Sympathize with me. Empathize with me. You can even disagree with me! Give me the validation I need, whatever that may be, so I can move forward and find the solutions to my own problems. But please, when the tears come streaming down my face (sorry Coldplay!), whatever you do, don’t try to fix me.
*Open-ended questions are ones that do not have yes/no answers. These questions often begin with “what” or “how”—-“what makes you think that?” or “how does that make you feel?” Technically, questions starting with “why” are also open-ended, but I recommend avoiding them because they often come across as judgmental (think about a parent saying, “why didn’t you clean your room when I asked?”).