By: Noureen Benhalim, Psychologist
Please excuse this rant. It’s an itch I need to scratch.
Each and every single one of us is guilty of doing this one thing- maybe simply because we are used to it. Someone comes to us with a problem, and instead of trying to understand, we do one of two things:
We automatically give advice (I’m very guilty of this one). Or we say that we know exactly how they feel. And we are entirely unaware of how isolating this can be for the person on the receiving end.
We say things like:
“What lesson can you learn from this situation?”
“You’ll get over it.”
“I know exactly how you feel. That happened to me too.”
First of all, no- you don’t know how they feel. And despite the fact that it may appear very similar to your own, every person’s experience is different. You cannot assume that they feel the same way you do. That kind of conversational narcissism needs to stop.
We see someone crying and our first instinct is to tell them to stop. Our first instinct is to distract them from that feeling, tell them to forget about it, or to shrug it off. We see someone in pain, and all we want to do is turn the other way. We are made to feel, yet we are so uncomfortable with feeling.
We try so hard to “fix”, to find the “moral” of the story. We come up with advice made to help the other person feel better. We’ve stopped learning how to listen, and instead we think about responding instead of temporarily suspending our own beliefs and feelings. We are no longer in the moment. And if we are not looking at our phones or distracted by something else, then we’re too busy thinking about how to “fill” the conversation.
We have to face the uncomfortable truth that not everything that happens to us in life is disguised as a lesson.
Some situations will be forced onto you, and some choices you’ll have to make regardless of whether you want to or not. The truth is, in life we don’t always get to choose the cards we are dealt, and so naturally, we don’t always get to choose how we react to our circumstances.
So every time we treat someone’s pain, like there is a lesson to be found behind it, we belittle their experience. And unknowingly, we contribute to a sense of social isolation.
Pain does not go away until it is acknowledged. Some emotions are so raw, they demand to be felt. And people, they just want to be heard, seen, and validated.
Never underestimate the power of listening. You may not know what to say, what to do, or how to react to someone else’s pain. Instead of saying, “I know exactly how you feel,” say “I can see how hard this is for you.” Instead of saying, “ You’ll get over this in time,” say, “right now it feels like this won’t end”. And if you don’t know what to say, remember that your simple presence says: “I’m right here and I’m not going anywhere.”
In graduate school one of my supervisors would always tell us to
“Sit with the pain”.
Of course, the perfectionist inside me couldn’t let go, and I always responded with
“but what do you do if ___?”
“what do you say if____?”
And he would just look at me and say:
“Noureen, sit with the pain.”
I’m finally learning to do just that.