The dos and don’ts of emotional support
Giving emotional support is not as straightforward as you may think. When we acknowledge that most of us were raised in an environment of emotional neglect and perfectionism, it becomes clear how a lack of emotional intimacy affects our ability to deal with feelings naturally. The habit of distancing ourselves from feelings, especially when negative, and refusing to embrace their wisdom and our own vulnerability, only creates an even bigger distance between others and ourselves. If you would like to change that scenario and feel more connected, here are the dos and don’ts of emotional support:
1- Do not problem solve
Emotional support does what it says on the tin. Therefore, it is not about coming up with ideas to solve a problem, but dealing with the feelings that surround it. Unless there is a clear call for help, most of us do not need practical advice when talking about the issues that concern or upset us. It is also worth noticing that the urge to “help” and solve other people’s problems or afflictions – even when help is neither needed nor requested – is at the core of codependent behaviour.
2- Focus on feelings
Emotional support comes from a place of attunement to another person’s need for having his or her feelings recognised and validated. There is nothing more comforting when we are feeling low, frustrated or anxious, for instance, than having someone around us that respects our inadequacy by honouring the way we feel. When you say to someone in distress, “I can see that that is upsetting to you”, regardless of what is going on or if you agree with that person’s reasons or emotional reaction, you make him or her feel seen, accepted and understood.
3- Do not make it about you
Our complexity as individuals is so immense, that no experience is ever felt in an equal fashion by two different people. As soon as you start talking about your experience, giving examples of how you have dealt with a similar issue to the one brought up by the other person, the focus is turned to you. As it has been mentioned before, emotional support is not about analysing and comparing experiences and, supposedly, learning from them, but noticing and addressing feelings.
4- Do not antagonise
To antagonise is to oppose, which is the opposite of what is understood by “to support”. While an emotionally congruent and supportive person favours the expression and recognition of feelings, be it in himself/herself or others, an antagonising, selfish or emotionally neglectful one has the habit of ignoring, repressing, avoiding, denying or normalising them. When you behave like the latter, you are not giving emotional support, but alienating the other. You can do that quite automatically, unintentionally and unconsciously, by using common sense judgement, motivational speech, excessive positive psychology and platitudes, for instance.
5- Be empathic
Empathy is like a mirror, or the ability to feel, see and experience what the other is feeling, seeing or experiencing. Simply put, when someone feels sad, angry, fearful or disgusted, those are the feelings you focus on and seek to validate. Moreover, you display an empathic attitude when you do the following:
- Take time to listen: let the person speak and do not interrupt. Do not rush to get that tissue or glass of water either, but focus on what the person has to say first.
- Stay with the inadequacy and embrace it. Be emotionally tolerant by allowing emotional expression and flow.
- Agree with the other. Put yourself in his or her shoes and try to see the world from his or her perspective.
- When lost for words, use the following:
“It must have been hard”
“I see that that is upsetting to you”
“I also hate when that happens”
“I hear you. That must have been annoying for you”
“Feeling anxious sucks, doesn’t it?”
“ I can see that you are angry, what happened?”
“It is awful when that happens”
“You must have felt uncomfortable”
“I understand that that is not easy for you”
“I am sorry you feel that way”
“I see your point”
“I understand how that must have made you feel”
“It must suck feeling that way”
- Give the other a sign of your affection. If you have an intimate relationship with the other person, you can also offer him or her a hug or a kiss, once he or she has finished talking and dealing with his or her feelings of inadequacy.