Part of being in a relationship with someone – friend or loved one – means being there for them when they need us. During a time of need, such as the death of a loved one, overcoming a difficult breakup, losing a job, or living through other life challenges, these individuals may turn to someone they trust to provide them with guidance, or support them in their recovery.
We want to be there for those we care about. But if you’re like most people, sometimes you struggle to find the right words, ideas, or solutions that will make them feel better. Indeed, sometimes the actions we take can actually make the other person feel worse.
When Empathy Goes Wrong
It’s not uncommon, out of the discomfort and pressure to show someone we’re there for them, to relate their issues to our own struggles. We may tell stories, share memories, or describe experiences that we feel are similar to theirs, to convey things like:
- We know what it’s like.
- We went through something similar.
- We were also sad/stressed, etc.
We believe we’re helping the other person understand that we’ve been there too. But what we may be doing is sending the exact opposite message. By taking the focus off of their struggles and making it about you, it risks invalidating their experience and feelings and brings the focus on your own.
One of the things we learn as Long Island psychologists is that even if two situations are similar, they are never exactly the same, because every person has their own reality and the lens they use to see their situation is often not the same as yours. We really DON’T know how they feel. We only know how we felt when living through a similar situation. That distinction is important for offering help.
So How Can You Offer Comfort?
If you want to be a source of comfort to someone else, simply offer your time, your undivided attention, and your willingness to listen and validate the way they feel. We feel like people expect us to say something or know the answers — they usually don’t. They just want to be heard out, and for them, the simple process of talking through their issue or feelings can give them clarity or lighten their emotional load.