- The need to take away a loved one's distress may tempt you to fix instead of understand.
- Providing advice, lecturing, and demanding that the loved one do what you recommend often pushes them away.
- Instead of fixing, understanding may be a more effective way to help.
You hate seeing a loved one upset, so your first impulse is to try and take the pain away by telling them exactly how to “fix” the problem, or you jump in and solve the problem for them. Yet, the response from the loved one is not the reaction you expect. Your efforts to help seem to shut them down and make them more upset and the chasm between you grows.
It is important to understand why “fixing” often fails. First, a person who feels emotional distress often feels alone, lost, and confused. It is important to help them feel soothed and grounded before mentioning logical solutions.
In addition, when you tell a person how to remedy their situation, you may be inadvertently communicating to them that they are not capable of solving their own problem. This strips them of their self-efficacy and undermines their confidence when they need it the most, to get through a tough time.
Although your heart is in the right place, it may be necessary to stop fixing. Instead of trying to help, it may be more effective to try and understand. When a loved one feels truly understood, they usually feel less alone, not so “crazy” because someone else has felt the feeling too, and connected to you because you get it. Closeness and empathy may be all that they need.
The following scenario may help you distinguish fixing from understanding.
Dan discovers he failed to get his promotion. He comes home and is quiet and listless. He barely says a word as he helps Ann prepare dinner. Ann senses his grief and asks if he is okay. Dan hangs his head and admits he was passed over. Ann is appalled. She demands to know the reason for this and asks for every detail of his meeting with his supervisor. As Dan explains, she interrupts him and asks, “Why didn’t you say X, and why didn’t you say Y?”
Dan withdraws. Ann becomes angry and tells him that if he cannot stick up for himself, she will help him. She goes to her computer and insists that Dan join her to co-construct an email to his boss. Dan is distraught. He begs her not to get involved. He knows it will make things worse for him. Ann rants for the rest of the night about how Dan is failing to advocate for himself. Dan becomes increasingly overwhelmed and decides to sleep in the basement where he does not have to hear Ann’s advice.
Ann senses Dan’s distress. She listens attentively as he discloses his difficult news, and she resonates with his disappointment. She has been deeply disappointed many times in her life. It may have been due to a different circumstance, but she can wholeheartedly relate to the feeling.
She says to Dan, “You are so disappointed. I would be too. You really wanted this and you worked so hard for it. You have every right to be upset.” Dan looks at her relieved and says, “Yes, I am really upset.”
Wanting to know more about what Dan is experiencing, so she can truly understand, she asks, “What is the worst part about all of this?” Dan responds, “It was my last shot. I retire in two years.” Dan goes on to say that he feels like a failure because he ended his career at a much lower level than he had planned.”
Ann thinks about what Dan is saying and remembers being in college and not making it into her school’s national honor society when all of her friends were inducted during her senior year. She felt ashamed and inadequate. She relates to what Dan is feeling and says, “It hurts to not feel good enough. It really does. I completely get it. I have felt like that a lot in my life.”
She hugs Dan and he accepts. He is relieved that Ann understands. After a few minutes Ann says, “But, you never know what can happen in two years. I believe in you, Dan.” Dan chuckles and asks Ann if she wants to watch their favorite Netflix series after dinner. She agrees.
Ann does five things in this example that allow her to empathize with Dan instead of “fix.”
- In place of thinking about the details of his situation, Ann focuses on what Dan is feeling.
- Ann keeps her focus on Dan and not on what she thinks or feels Dan should do. She does not make it about her. She resonates with Dan and supports him.
- Ann may not have experienced a similar plight as Dan, but she recognizes and communicates an understanding of what he is feeling: disappointment.
- She honors what Dan is feeling and then reassures and encourages him.
- If Dan asks for her advice, she provides it but only if she asks.
Your intentions may be good when trying to help a loved one in emotional distress, but understanding instead of lecturing may be more effective. In addition, by understanding, you help your loved one feel less alone and connected to you because you get it. When they feel close to someone, they are anchored to someone who gets it but who is also grounded. This may allow the loved one to feel that you are a “safe place to land.” As an emotionally safe person, your loved one may continue opening up to you which sustains closeness in the relationship.
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