Thursday, March 3, 2011

When "Helpful" Isn't

I want to you to take a moment and think about a moment in life when you were hurting. Did you hear anything like this offered as support or comfort?

* Everything happens for a reason.
* This is part of a bigger plan.
* You can have another baby (get married again, apply for another job, etc).
* You just need to think positive.
* It will feel better tomorrow.

I could go on and on. My guess is that anyone reading this who has experienced a major loss or disappointment has heard at least one of the above statements, or things that sound just like them. These statements represent a sample of the things that people say as a response to pain or loss. It's not unusual for these statements to come from someone who is very close to you, someone that you thought you could count on for support. As you think about your loss and the responses you experienced, try to remember how you felt after those responses. Did you feel heard? Supported? Dismissed? Invalidated?

While responses like the sample statements above may be intended to convey support, or to help us think beyond our pain, that's not how they often feel. Many people who are in pain feel dismissed or unheard when they receive these sorts of responses. Whey they describe their experiences to me in session, they report these feelings with some degree of confusion. Why does a response that is intended to be helpful feel so unhelpful?

I believe that the there are two primary reasons that these types of responses feel unhelpful. The first is that they are generalized. They do not acknowledge the uniqueness of our experiences. So being told that "everyone goes through this" may feel dismissive. The second is that these types of responses function as a signal that the person in pain should contain themselves. They do not create a space where any of the grief feelings are acceptable. These types of responses do not validate and normalize feelings of pain. So, if these responses aren't genuinely helpful, why are they so persistent?

There are several reasons for this. The first is that many people feel overwhelmed or helpless in the face of intense pain or loss. So they respond with a platitude. This is not a lack of caring--it's simply a reflection of the respondent's own discomfort with pain. I touched on this issue briefly in my post on "What Makes Therapy Different?"

The second reason that a friend or acquaintance may respond to pain or grief with an unhelpful generalized response is their own internal load. If someone is feeling rushed or pressured or overwhelmed, they often function on auto-pilot when faced with another's pain.

When an "unhelpful" response to pain or loss comes from someone that cares for us, it is most often a reflection of their own pain. It is incredibly hard to watch someone that you love be in pain. Most of us have a strong urge to try to decrease the intensity of the pain. While that urge is understandable, it is important not to respond in dismissive ways.

So, if the most common responses to pain or loss are actually unhelpful, what can we do to respond with support and validation? Here are a few basic suggestions:

1. Listen. Don't jump in, don't try to console, don't try to help the person in pain see the "bright side." Just listen, and create a safe space for their feelings.

2. Ask questions. Sometimes a person in pain needs or wants a distraction. Sometimes they want permission to just get some of their experience out in the open. By asking questions, you give them space to define their needs.

3. Be aware of your own limits. If someone's pain is more intense than you can handle, encourage them to reach out to a psychologist or other additional support.

4. Did I mention listen??

How about you? What was the most helpful response you received during a time of pain? What was the least helpful?