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Comforting a Friend in Distress. Are You Doing it Right?

Updated: Mar 24, 2023

Emotions like sadness, anger, and disappointment have always been part of the human experience. Maybe now, more than ever, we and people we know, are going to lose composure, have meltdowns, be afraid of the future, and get swept away by the pain of uncertainty, loss, or confusion.

Mental health practitioners often stress the importance of having a support system (friends/family that we confide in). The benefits of using a support system include:

1) processing difficult feelings by verbalizing them.

2) working through the feelings with a natural release of that emotion.

3) deepening the connection with those whom we confide in.

4) reconditioning ourselves to learn that vulnerability can be a healthy and necessary unburdening of the heavy loads we are used to carrying.

5) having a disconfirming experience: instead of being rejected when we are vulnerable, we have the experience of being accepted and understood, making sharing our emotions a bit easier next time.

Unfortunately, instead of using our support system, many of us have been conditioned to not ask for help, but to be tough or strong, and try to handle things on our own. Also, we've been conditioned to not express certain emotions and/or vulnerability (especially as men).

So, when someone you know is hurting, and they make the scary choice to confide in you and be vulnerable in your presence, do you have the skills to support them in healthy and nurturing ways? Despite having good intentions when a friend or loved one needs comforting, we often act or speak in ways that aren't actually very helpful. Do you know how to truly be present and supportive?

Try to remember a time when you felt down or afraid and someone said to you "don't be sad" or "don't be scared." Chances are that probably wasn't very helpful, right? Not only is this type of comforting not useful, it can often lead to someone burying a valid human emotion, or even worse, them being ashamed of feeling the way they do. When we say "cheer up" or "just be positive" or "you should be happy," the message really is: 'you shouldn't feel the way you feel.' One of the biggest no-no's when attempting to comfort someone is to invalidate their experience.

The first thing you can do to be supportive and nurturing is to check in with yourself when someone you know is hurting. How are you when you witness their expression of pain? Is it your discomfort that drives your impulse to cheer them up, or change the way they feel, rather than allowing them to have whatever experience they are having? Because of our own histories with difficult emotions, we may not be able to tolerate the painful experience someone else is having. In order to be a supportive friend (and a healthy human), you must have the emotional space to sit with difficulty (and sit with silence) without immediately reacting to it or needing it to change.

You may use the SCOPE acronym to as a way to get grounded, present, and work with your own discomfort:

S: Slow Down. This is a time for responding, not reacting.

C: Connect to Body. Notice the sensations of your breath, heartbeat, and tension. Exhale.

O: Orient. Look Around. What do you see in your field of vision? This helps with presence.

P: Pendulate. Where is the body tension? Where do you feel at ease? Shift awareness between the two.

E: Engage. Now respond to your friend in a way that supports whatever it is they are feeling.

Helpful ways to engage:

Don't fix. Often the last thing your friend needs is for someone to start fixing their problem. Just be there. Your presence for now is enough. More than enough.

Try to understand what they are experiencing and what they might need right now. Sometimes the most helpful thing is when someone gets what you're going through, and to know that they're not alone.

Validate their emotions and experience. Let them know whatever they are feeling is OK! It's ok to cry. It's normal to be scared. I would be disappointed too. It makes sense you're feeling this way.

Actively listen. Help them sort it out. Often, your job is not to talk. Your job is to listen. By asking them questions about their experience and how they are feeling, you are helping them to make sense of their experience. Affirm or repeat back what you heard them say, so that they feel understood.

Be present and flexible. Encourage them to talk if they feel like talking, but also be OK with silence if that's what they need. Practice being in silence with others if necessary.

Ask: Is there anything you need right now? How can I best help? If they ask for advice, this is your time to go for it!

Let them know you're here for them, both now and in the future.

It was the legendary Mr. Rogers who said: "People have said 'don't cry' to other people for years and years, and all it has ever meant is 'I'm too uncomfortable when you show your feelings.' I'd rather have them say 'go ahead and cry, I'm here to be with you.'"

I hope this is useful! I'm a licensed psychotherapist (similar to a psychologist) in Vietnam. Please contact me if you or anyone you know might benefit from therapy.

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