By Trixie Hennessey
When those we love are hurting we hurt right along with them, and the closer we are to them the more we resonate with their pain and suffering. We want to take their pain and hurt away, and one of the ways we often choose to do this is by talking them out of whatever painful emotion they are feeling or experiencing.
We may encourage them to “look on the bright side of things,” or reassure them that as bad as they feel, “things could be worse.” At other times we might choose to tell them how smart or pretty or kind they are, in an attempt to “fill their bucket” with wonderfulness. And although this kind of reassurance is well-intended and sensitive, it is not an empathic response. What do I mean by that?
Empathy conveys a sense that another person’s experiences and feelings are deeply understood and shared by us, and this instills trust and confidence that we can manage through difficult emotions with that person. The more accurately and non-judgmentally we reflect their feelings and emotions, the more comforted and supported they will feel.
If we focus our efforts on talking others out of their emotions or putting a positive spin on situations, we convey our discomfort with what the other person is feeling and experiencing in that moment. Not only that, but we also communicate that we would appreciate them shifting to a less distressing and easier to manage emotional state because their anguish is becoming painful for us.
When someone senses that we are unwilling to walk through their uncomfortable feelings and emotions with them, it also undermines their confidence in their own ability to deal with whatever they are experiencing. Trying to talk someone out of their upset with reassuring platitudes during these moments often provokes even greater upset, anxiety and resistance because that person has little confidence that someone else understand what they are going through.
The “look on the bright side” approach effectively denies the person their emotional experience; the implication is that certain emotions are acceptable or preferable, and other emotions are less acceptable. Fear, sadness, anger and shame are difficult emotions that many families struggle to validate, and in fact we often describe these emotions and mood states as negative. As a result, we are implicitly learning from early on that certain emotions are valid or acceptable, and other emotions are unacceptable. So, if “looking on the bright side” and providing reassurance perpetuates unhelpful patterns, how do we support someone who is struggling with difficult emotions?
We can begin by accepting (unconditionally and without judgment) whatever feelings and emotions that person is experiencing and then leaning into that discomfort by simply being in their experience with them. We can resist the urge to ‘fix’ their difficult situation or emotions for them and instead, give them the space and the opportunity to feel and experience a sense of mastery over their life and emotions. In the end, all that someone who is struggling with difficult emotions wants is to know that someone else is willing to walk alongside them in their discomfort.
In time we will become more comfortable as we learn together that emotions are not as big and scary as they seem, and that they inevitably pass. We will also come to learn that avoidance of difficult emotions tends to make the emotions bigger and gives them more power over us. We will also come to recognize and accept that our emotions provide clues to our unmet needs and the unmet needs of others. So if we avoid uncomfortable and painful emotions by numbing out or seeking distractions, we miss an opportunity to connect with someone and truly understand what unmet need they might be trying to express. If that person is struggling with an eating disorder, it is a sure bet that they feel so scared and overwhelmed by their emotions that they are using food (or lack thereof) to avoid the painful emotions rather than “feeling and dealing.” In this case, “looking to the bright side” could inadvertently reinforce their cycle of shame, which in turn reinforces coping strategies such as eating disorders.
And what if we slip back into the depths of the bright side? Well, we can move forward by simply sharing more emphatically what we would have said in that moment, instead of being blinded by the false comfort of the bright side.
Trixie holds a Masters of Social Work degree from the University of British Columbia- Okanagan, where she also completed post-Masters training in Neurosequential Therapy. Trixie is the Looking Glass Foundation's Program Manager and has been a part of our team since 2011. She is also a Therapeutic Consultant at Optimal Family Wellness. She lives in Vancouver, BC and loves hiking, photography, and being mom to her two children.