It has taken a while for me to fully realize the impact of reassurance when a friend or loved one is struggling, stressed or pained in some way. In my world, I see the goodness in the world, and know that personal suffering is avoidable with the proper "tools" (for lack of a better word). But this is viewed as a phony belief by many, and not readily accepted by most. So, it's not very reassuring to approach someone who is upset with things like, "It's going to be okay," much less to say things like, "This is actually a good thing. If you look at it this way, you can see that it's not as bad as you think. Everything happens for you, not to you (as Katie likes to say). Here are some reasons not to get stressed out about this..."
Despite the fact that my wife has told me on a number of occasions that she doesn't want to be told things like that, my instincts continue to override logic (or whatever you want to call it) and rush in to "helper mode." It's interesting to see how unhelpful that can be most of the time. But there are a few key things that I've come to realize. First, a person complaining about something isn't necessarily requesting help, just voicing what's inside them. Secondly, when rushing into reassurance mode, there is a tendency to either negate the other person's feelings, or make them feel bad for having them, thereby making them frustrated at the messenger for not understanding them. Call me a slow learner, but after years of my unsuccessful attempts to help others, I'm finally getting it. "They don't need my help, they need a hug," is a saying that came to me recently.
This new undefstanding is thanks in part to having a toddler in the "terrible threes" stage of life, and a friend of mine who is somewhat of a parenting guru (thanks BJ). She and I had a "chance" meeting at just the right time (as all meetings do), and she told me about how to best deal with crying/complaining toddlers who want something that they can't have. Here is a summary of the tips she gave me:
Listen to what they have to say and repeat back to them their wishes in an understanding way. They just want what all of us want -- to be heard and understood. Shifting the focus of their desire to an agreeable solution makes the desired object/event less important. An example she gave was a situation where the child wants a cookie that you don't want her to have. You might say, "You really like cookies don't you? I do, too. Let's have one later on after we eat dinner (or something to that effect)." Follow up that with a slight change of subject, and the upset tends to dissipate. Basically, when you "join them" or acknowledge their desire in a positive light, rather than just telling them "No," the outcome is much more peaceful, and they tend to forget about what upset them in the first place. We have had a lot of success with this approach, but each situation calls for a different level of "joining" and finding an agreeable solution or new subject to focus on (it's a never-ending learning process for everyone involved).
Anyway, after a few recent failed attempts to reassure my wife about something she viewed as negative backfired, I realized that I had been going about things all wrong. As in the case with a toddler (and I'm not saying my wife acts like a three year old), she wants her feelings to be heard and understood (what most people want). Silly me, I thought that people who were stressed out wanted reassurance (must be the way I was raised). Now that I know that my attempts to help have been interpreted as me not caring, not listening, negating her feelings, etc., I am attempting to step back and take a look at the way I approach my relationships.
I've heard the term, "giving space" for someone who needs to express their frustration, and I've been trying to figure out what that looks like. As with everything, it's very situational and an "unlearning" process. Being with someone in some form of emotional/psychological pain, without trying to fix them and allowing them the space to experience what they are experiencing, runs counter to my intuition and seems to be a bit of a tightrope.
On the one side of the tightrope is the listening and not-say-anything approach, which may be interpreted as uncaring. Another way might be agreeing with the other person, which could look like being condescending if you're not sincere. Then there's the crusher, "Everything happens for the best," which, as true as it is, may be seen as disrespectful of the other person's feelings (and may get you slapped if you're not careful).
There is also the old saying, "Actions speak louder than words," which points to things like simply holding a person's hand, or giving them a hug when they are in pain and you don't know what to do. That may convey the entire message of "I'm here for you," without the needs for words of reassurance.
So, what am I learning from all of this? Here are a few things that have come up for me.
First, what the other person is experiencing is to be respected, even if it's not understood. Everyone is living in their own separate reality that is not like any one else's, and we're all doing our best to interact with people who don't see life the way we do.
"This too shall pass," is another good thing to keep in mind. It's not just some belief, it's the simple truth. Everything passes as soon as it happens, and in five minutes the entire episode may be done and over.
Don't expect too much of yourself. Regardless of your approach, don't feel like a failure if things don't magically get "better." Don't be surprised if you are blamed for the hurt of another, and don't take it personally.
Remember that this, whatever form this moment takes, is a necessary part of the path for others. They are walking it the only way they know how, as are you.
"They" are really "you" in disguise, and their job is to point out where we still have unresolved issues (or stuck energy), which takes the form of them "pushing our buttons."
Don't forget to be true to yourself when you are engaged with another human being who is in a negative state. If you can maintain a calm demeanor in the face of someone taking their pain out on you, that's great. But you don't have to take it. Removing yourself from a situation might be the kindest thing you can do.
It's been a learning process for me, and I'm sure I'll have more to share about it later.
Random Notes to Self:
Misguided attempts to make them feel better
See the bright side
Addicted to suffering
Guilt for being happy and seeing things as good
Addicted to past, unable to be present
Unable to "Join" them where they are
Reassurance heard as "Get over it," and a lack of respect.
Say nothing? Allow the wallowing? Love the wallowing
It's all about me. They are teaching us how to feel and experience emotions.
What should I be learning from this?
Ask how their holding up.
It is as it should be.
It is for the best.
No guilt for an apparent failure.