Michael T Ingram, MD
How To support someone you care about
Watching a loved one suffer can bring up many different emotions. You might be feeling sad, worried, helpless, frustrated, awkward or even angry. This is normal. As compassionate and caring humans, our natural tendency is to jump in and try to “fix” the problem. We will do anything we can to relieve the suffering of those we care deeply about. But sometimes the way we offer support has more to do with relieving our own discomfort and distress and this is where things can get a bit tricky. It becomes even more difficult if our loved one lacks insight into the problem or refuses to accept that a problem exists. So what is the best way to support someone? Is there a best way? The answer is no, one size does not fit all. Below are a few tips.
Don't Make Assumptions
When we know someone really well, it is tempting to assume we know what they need at all times. But we don't. Each of us responds differently to different situations even if the situation is similar to previous ones. Just because a loved one needed "X" in the past does not mean we should assume "X" is still relevant.
Put Your Mask On First
If you've ever traveled by airplane you are probably familiar with the oxygen masks. Flight attendants tell us to put on our oxygen masks first before helping others. If you're feeling exhausted, angry, sad, overwhelmed or frustrated, take a moment or two for yourself. Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths focusing on your breathing.
Silence isn't a Bad Thing
Many of us might feel an urge to offer reassurance or advice if silence sets in. Resist this urge. Sitting with someone in silence can send the powerful message that you are there to stay and listen whenever they are ready. Offering advice or quick reassurance can be perceived as dismissive. Have you ever cried in front of someone else? What would feel more reassuring, response number 1 or response number 2? 1) "Oh no, don't cry, it will be okay." 2) A silent hug or gentle back rub.
Nonverbal communication is very important. Position yourself so your entire body is facing toward the person you are consoling. Lean forward slightly without violating personal space and make eye contact. But don't stare if they aren't looking at you.
When in Doubt, Ask First
Sometimes we need a hug, other times we need space. Or maybe we don't know what we need. Regardless, if you aren't sure what your loved one needs, simply ask in a compassionate, supportive, and curious way. Example: "What can I do to support you during this really difficult time?"
Validation over Reassurance
Reassurance is okay, but validation is better. Being honest and genuine is of upmost importance. Making promises we can't keep or offering a false sense of hope can be more hurtful than helpful. You will never go wrong with validating someone's feelings, even if you disagree or believe they are over reacting. "It's going to be okay" isn't as supportive and nurturing as "I can tell this is really affecting you."
We cannot discuss being supportive without mentioning empathy. Empathy is the capacity to share and understand others (i.e., the ability to place oneself in another’s shoes). Empathy can be divided into two types, cognitive empathy and emotional empathy.
Cognitive Empathy: Understanding another’s position from an intellectual perspective.
Emotional Empathy: Understanding another’s position by sharing similar emotions.
We can appreciate the difference with the following example:
Your best friend Sally recently found out her spouse, Dave, has been texting another women. Sally comes over to your place in tears. “I am so mad! I can’t believe he would do this to me! I hate him!”
While you might understand why Sally would be angry and upset, you might not actually feel angry and upset as well.
Sally reveals that she doesn’t actually know if Dave is texting someone else but suspects he is based on his recent behaviors. Sally also reveals that she didn’t receive a promotion at work recently.
Cognitive empathy is your understanding of Sally’s reaction. It makes sense. But there are still many unanswered questions. Perhaps Sally is feeling unwanted and rejected because she didn’t receive the promotion and is now feeling insecure about her relationship with Dave.
The best support for Sally is a healthy balance of both cognitive and emotional empathy, what I call Goldilocks Empathy.
Too much cognitive empathy and you might come across as “too cold” and dismissive emotionally. Too much emotional empathy and you might come across as “too hot” and potentially reinforce a negative pattern of behavior.
In summary, we want to share understanding on both emotional and cognitive levels as we strive for a type of empathy called Goldilocks Empathy. This doesn’t come naturally for many people and takes practice. Many of us are more prone to one type of empathy over another (i.e., some of us tend to be more emotionally empathetic and some of us tend to be more cognitively empathetic). How we achieve Goldilocks Empathy takes practice–a topic for a future post (along with how to be supportive when a loved one denies a problem exists).