How To Respond Compassionately To Someone's Suffering
About a month ago I texted my mom to tell her I was having a difficult day. I'm not sure why I did, other than I was having a really tough day emotionally and acted on the impulse to tell someone.
Her response to my text, "Oh well, you'll get through it."
Her response made me feel like shit. I was beyond pissed, even more upset than before, angry at my mother and, for the first time, I understood why: I felt unheard, invalidated, my feelings dismissed. With a simple "oh well" she discounted the pain I was experiencing and it hurt.
She, of course, was just trying to help, to offer a solution or piece of advice in an attempt to make me feel better. After all, I had reached out to tell her how upset I was. How did I expect her to respond?
But sometimes, when someone shares what they're going through, they aren't asking for you to make it better. For whatever reason, just telling someone makes us feel a little less desolate. It's human nature to want to share, to have someone who hears us, who understands, who can sympathize with what we're going through. We want to know that we are not alone. We want someone to acknowledge how badly we are hurting, and allow us to be just as we are without needing or expecting us to feel better. We don't want someone to fix our sadness.
However, more often than not we're met with a less compassionate response. Think of the last time you shared your pain with someone; how did their response make you feel? Did you feel truly heard, acknowledged and accepted? Or did you feel irritated, disregarded or even hurt, and not fully understand why?
For the most part, people genuinely want to help. They don't want to see you suffering. And because they don't want to see you suffering, they offer advice, clichéd proverbs, pep talks, or distractions. Our society is uncomfortable with pain and sadness. We haven't been taught how to respond truly compassionately to other people's suffering.
In his book, "The Reality Slap," Russ Harris presents two lists — the first, a few responses that genuinely make you feel supported and understood; and the second, a number of responses that, although meant to be helpful, aren't really all that compassionate. Let's start with the less compassionate responses (many of which I myself am guilty of, and if we're being honest, most of us have said at times):
- Telling you to "think positively"
- Giving advice: "What you should do is this, "Have you thought about doing such and such?"
- Discounting your feelings: "No use crying over spilled milk," "It's not that bad," "Cheer up!"
- Trumping your pain: "Oh yes, I've been through this many times myself. Here's what worked for me."
- Telling you to get over it: "Move on," "Let it go," "Isn't it time you got over this?"
- Trivializing or diminishing your pain: "Put it into perspective — there are kids starving in Africa."
While some of the above responses can indeed be helpful, they mostly feel hurtful when they're the first response given. Very few of us are capable of jumping right in and objectively looking at our painful situations. Before we can listen to advice or even hear that everything will be OK, we must be acknowledged. We need a little time to just feel hurt without having to get over it or do something about it right away. The above responses are received so much better once a person acknowledges how much pain you're experiencing.
Simply hearing someone say I understand can mean so much to a person who's suffering.
Here are some compassionate responses highlighted in Harris' book:
- Asking how you feel
- Giving you a hug, embrace, placing an arm around you or holding your hand
- Validating your pain: "This must be so hard for you" or "I can't begin to imagine what you're going through."
- Sharing their own reactions: "I'm so sorry, "I'm so angry," "I feel so helpless; I wish there was something I could do," or even "I don't know what to say."
- Creating space for your pain: "Do you want to talk about it?" It's OK to cry," or, "We don't have to talk; I'm happy to just sit here with you."
- Offering support: "Is there anything I can do to help?"