As a social worker, the first lesson I had to learn was the power of sitting in silence.
When a person is emotional, freaked out, or in pain, it is a very human reaction to search for a solution. To try to make them feel better. It’s uncomfortable to witness negative emotions, it’s uncomfortable to watch someone hurting. So we try to fix it.
For example, if a person is crying because their partner broke up with them and they’re afraid they’ll be alone forever, most people’s immediate reaction is to placate. “What an idiot for breaking up with you!” “Why would they do that??” “They will never be able to find someone better than you” “Of course you won’t be alone forever, you’re good looking and wonderful, you’ll find someone in no time!” These are not bad reactions, and sometimes we all need to hear these things from our friends and family.
However, in general, the placating doesn’t help much. In our rush to fix the negativity, to make everyone feel better, we’re doing the opposite. We’re making it about us, and our relationship with the person, and what we think and feel about the situation. We’re also expressly trying to change their emotions (from negative to positive, from distraught to accepting, etc.), which is actually telling the person that their emotions are wrong and in need of changing. It’s not validating.
When we don’t validate a person’s feelings they’re likely to suppress what they’re feeling and pretend to feel something else. To make us, the observer, feel better. They might even become angry at themselves for not being able to feel better, to feel the positive emotions we want them to feel.
So how to help? By sitting and listening with patience. Just showing up and staying while the person purges themselves of the negative emotions does more for the individual than all the placating and fixing. It tells the person their emotions are real and they are worth being listened to. It also proves to them that they have the support and acceptance in their lives to get through the negativity and find their way back to a more positive (or at least neutral) state of being.
But total silence is kinda creepy. It’s alright to give a hug and some kind, encouraging words. But maybe only after some quiet, active listening.