Sometimes it can be difficult to know how to respond when someone experiences strong or negative emotions. Often we feel awkward, uncomfortable, or even nervous, and may be unsure of how to respond. This is made more challenging because the socially acceptable response to someone asking us how we are is often “Good, and you?”. Whenever someone answers with a genuine response, such as “I’m actually having a tough day today”, our mental gears come to a halt and panic sets in.
This doesn’t only happen with co-workers or acquaintances. Even with close friends and family, we tend to be most comfortable around expressions of joy, happiness, and excitement. So how can we support someone experiencing a strong negative emotion?
One effective strategy is “Being With”, a core concept of the world-renowned “Circle of Security” attachment-based parenting model.
While this model was developed to support parents, many of the concepts in the model can be applied to all areas of social interaction and relationships, including this idea of “Being With”. Being With is attunement to another person’s feelings and needs, being comfortable empathizing with others and acknowledging the importance and validity of their emotions.
One of my favorite examples of Being With is from the Disney Pixar movie Inside Out. In one scene, Bing Bong, a lovable imaginary friend, loses a precious item and becomes very sad. The main character, Joy, is uncomfortable with Bing Bong’s sadness and is too focused on her own needs, desires, and lack of comfort with these emotions to Be With Bing Bong. In an attempt to quickly make Bing Bong feel better, Joy tries tickling him, making silly faces, attempting to refocus him on their destination, and speaking in an overly cheery voice, all to no avail. However, another character, named Sadness, comes to sit by Bing Bong, and empathizes with and validates Bing Bong’s feelings. She allows Bing Bong the time and space to process his emotions without judgement. With the support from Sadness, Bing Bong is able to experience his emotions, and it allows this experience to feel safe and supports the ability for Bing Bong to manage these emotions in the future:
We can all probably relate to Joy’s character. It’s easy to know how to respond when things are going well. But what do we do when life is not all rainbows and butterflies (which,let’s be honest – is most of the time)? For example, what do you do when:
- your child comes home from school and has been bullied?
- your friend is crying that their partner left?
- your spouse is angry that things aren’t going well at work?
Whether you are in the role of parent, friend, spouse, coworker, or therapist, it can be easy to respond to negative or uncomfortable emotions, such as sadness, anger, worry, or disappointment, with:
1.Words meant to be Encouraging
“Everything happens for a reason!”
“ Stay positive! It will get better soon.”
“ It will all turn out O.K.”
“It’s really not that big of a deal.”
“Look at So-And-So who has it so much worse!”
“But look at all of the other good things in your life!”
“Just calm down.”
“Come on – Smile!”
“Let’s go eat some ice cream and forget about all this.”
Telling a joke or funny story
Tickling (for kids)
- Giving Advice
“Ok, here’s what you need to do…”
“If I were you, I would…”
- Insert Limit or punishment/Shame
“We do not yell in this household!”
“That is unacceptable behavior!”
“What did you just say/do?!”
Additionally, when we interact with our own children, we may focus on correcting the behavior rather than tuning into and trying to understand the emotion. For example, when your child is crying and screaming because you have told them it is time to clean up their toys, it may be instinctual to punish them, send them to their room, lecture them about appropriate behavior, or yell back. We may even respond by inserting a limit meant to keep them from crying or shaming them about the emotion they are experiencing and displaying.
We sometimes get so focused on planning our response to a friend or worrying what others will think about a child’s emotional expression that we forget to truly listen to the other person and be present with them through their experience. By not “truly” listening, you might miss “tuning in” to a critical piece of what is going on with the other person.
When someone is having a difficult time, why is it that we try so hard to move them quickly into a state of happiness? Why do we focus so much on trying to say just the right thing that will make them feel better? Often, this comes from some combination of our being uncomfortable with the emotions that the other person is experiencing and a genuine desire to help the other person feel better. Happiness is much easier and more comfortable for most of us to deal with, even if we know that it is forced or faked by the other person. Our response can also be influenced by the households and environments we were raised in, especially if uncomfortable or negative feelings were deemed unacceptable.
While we often do these things with the best of intentions, what would happen if we just sat with our child, friend, or partner and acknowledged how they were feeling; genuinely empathized with them, without trying to coax them into happiness?
But how do we do this? A key part of “Being With” is expressing empathy, and matching the individual’s level of affect and tone. You can validate what they are feeling without judgment, by saying things like:
“Yeah. You are right. That was a really terrible thing that happened.”
“I’m here for you if you need someone to listen.”
“It’s okay to be mad/sad/worried.”
And, sometimes this looks like just sitting with the person without saying anything. Just BEING there. Sometimes people just need someone to hear their pain. Someone to allow them the space to be real about their thoughts and feelings. Someone to acknowledge that it’s alright to feel however they feel and allows them the space to process ALL of their emotions.