Dealing with our own physical and emotional pain is difficult, but responding to the pain of others can be overwhelming. Witnessing or hearing about physical injury calls attention to our vulnerability, and reminds us that our bodies are not invincible. Though broken bones and bloody wounds may unnerve us, we know we can do something to help -- be it first aid, finding assistance, or calling 911.
The rules for helping those in emotional pain are based less on diagnosis and procedures, and more on personal style. Some rush to help, often confusing "fixing" with helping. Others want to run like the wind, hoping they won't be asked to be involved; while the rest may feel paralyzed and helpless, assuming they don't have the skills to assist the person.
Our threshold for tolerating other people's pain may vary, but we all have something to offer despite our differences. The most effective way to help is to be honest about what we can offer, and maintain connection using the following strategies:
1. Ask the person what they need.
Even though we may think that preparing a meal is in order, an hour of babysitting might be more appreciated. Or we might assume that the person wants to share their feelings when they would rather discuss another topic. In fact, they may prefer to have no conversation, and only desire our company -- they may even wish to be alone. Asking, not assuming, is the only way to find out.
2. Give advice only when asked.
Advice is always appreciated when it is requested, but unsolicited feedback may be our way of shutting the person down to avoid our own discomfort. People who feel hurt want to know they are not alone, and that someone understands the depth of their experience. Offering easy answers can leave the person feeling unheard, unseen, and more alone.
3. Offer referrals not recommendations.
While it may make sense at the time, suggesting quick solutions such as getting a dog, going on a cruise, or joining a dating service will not hasten the person's recovery process. If you are asked, make recommendations to professionals who can address the issue directly.
4. Let the person have their pain.
Trying to talk someone out of their feelings by implying they are to blame, offering stories of people who have had it worse, or judging the validity of their loss will not contribute to their healing. Women who have miscarried don't want to hear that there is another child in their future, and heartbroken people don't need to be told that they will meet their soul mate when they least expect it.
5. Observe your behavior.
We can learn much about ourselves by paying attention to how we help others. Offering quick solutions or pointing out a silver lining is less likely to provide comfort, and may be more of a statement about how we soothe our own pain. Actively listening, instead of actively fixing, teaches us to accept the limits of our power. Those of us who turn away from emotional pain are both challenged to confront our helplessness, as well as value our presence and quiet empathy. Empathic connection during a difficult time doesn't require special words or skills. Authentic caring and a desire to be present is enough on its own.
There is no harm in having limits; the harm is in masquerading as a willing listener to avoid feeling guilty. Whether we are the one who is suffering, or the one trying to help, we all face the reality that there are no clear solutions to resolve emotional pain. There is no bandage to stop the tears, no method to sterilize the psychic wound, and no plaster cast for the heartbreak. What we do have is our presence, and by listening to the needs of the suffering, we provide a connection that is more powerful than any spoken words of wisdom.