It’s really hard to watch someone you care about languish in emotional upheaval and pain. We all have people in our lives; relatives, friends, co-workers, significant others, neighbors, etc., who at one time or another have been in a very hurt or needy place. Of course, it happens to us too, but this article is about helping others when they are struggling with difficult feelings. We all want to be helpful and offer advice when we’re with someone who has suffered the end of a marriage or relationship. The emotional toll can be profound and overwhelming.
The typical default “helpful advice” usually centers around offering a solution to their pain. When someone is pining over a lost relationship and is in pain over it, telling them to “get over it”, “get out there and date again”, “he/she was an idiot and isn’t worth pining over”, “you can do so much better”, “I told you this was going to happen”, etc. are all things we think might help, but in reality, often make things worse.
Why is that? When someone is going through strong feelings, their experience is not in the solution. Their experience is in the pain of whatever happened. Trying to offer a solution is actually belittling their experience. Either one of two things will happen. They will feel worse for not being able to move past the pain quickly or they will try hard to stuff their feelings down so they can make everyone offering advice happy. In either case, your friend or relative will not benefit from any solution-oriented advice.
Instead, work at being supportive of what they’re going through. Mirror their feelings back to them. For example, if you hear them saying how devastated they are, you can say “it really sounds like you’re devastated that things are over”. When someone feels “heard”, it is a great relief and actually gives them the freedom to explore what they are feeling. The quicker they understand their own feelings and reactions to things, the quicker they can put it behind and move forward. Sometimes, just being a good listener makes all the difference. Let them talk. Maintain eye contact so they know you are listening, but just listen. You can nod your head to show them you understand what they’re saying.
Sometimes, asking questions that frees them to talk about how they’re feeling can also be helpful. Things like, “So how are you feeling about all of this?” or “What do you need to help you with the pain you’re in?” In either case, you are giving them the green light to share with someone willing to listen. That person that is struggling needs to talk it out and when you allow them to, it will be very helpful and deeply appreciated. It’s certainly ok to ask them to join you for dinner or just have them come over to hang out. But be careful not to put a time limit on their process and refrain from offering solutions. And don’t give them guilt if they’re not yet ready to socialize.
At a certain point, if they haven’t figured out their next move, if they feel safe with you, they might ask you for solution-oriented help. Here’s where things get sticky. You are most likely going to offer solutions that seem like the quickest way to get over the hurt, to put it behind, to move past it all. You may even want to belittle the situation thinking that if they can also minimize the situation, then they will heal faster. This can create confusion and doubt, especially if they don’t feel like they can do what you recommend. Instead, it’s always best to put it back on them. For example, if they say, “What do you think I should do now?”, you can say something like “What feels right to you now”, or “Is there something you’ve been thinking about doing?”.
These supportive approaches always work best because they will not put the person under stress to get over it. It will allow them to move at their own pace and it will give them the ability to find what feels right for them at that moment.
Of course, if you see them really struggling and unable to move into a more centered and healthier mindset, then you can suggest that they see a professional to get the help they need. It is not uncommon for people to go through an identity crisis after a long-term relationship ends. They may be filled with doubts about their attractiveness to a new partner, they may be overwhelmed with fear of future hurt, they may lose all self-esteem, etc. This is a crisis and one that usually requires intervention either through life coaching or psychotherapy.
Most importantly, be on the lookout for self-destructive behavior. Many people in pain look to alcohol and drugs to numb the pain because they simply can’t handle the intensity of what they are feeling. In this case, don’t sit back and give them space. Make sure they know that you are here for them and will help them get the help they need. This way, instead of destroying themselves, they can get the intervention they need to properly heal and move forward in the healthiest way possible.
Dr. Robert Kornfeld is a life coach and holistic podiatrist based in NYC and Long Island. He is the Founder of Change Your Story Coaching (www.changeyourstorycoaching.com) and assists people on their journey to making their dream life happen. Sign up for his email list and get all of his timely and informative articles in your inbox. Are you ready to change your story? Change your life? Contact him today. For coaching, he can be contacted at email@example.com. He also practices functional medicine for chronic foot and ankle pain at The Chronic Foot Pain Center in NYC and Port Washington, L.I. (www.drrobertkornfeld.com). For foot and ankle medical problems, he can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.