When people we care about are struggling, our natural instinct is to intervene and try to heal their hurt. But it can be difficult to know what to say or do. Even more, sometimes what we consider helpful can be received as unwelcome.
Whether your partner is grappling with a chronic illness, your sister is nearing burnout, or your friend’s anxiety is high, here’s how you can genuinely help someone who is in a tough spot. Try these four approaches, suggested by therapists:
1. Deal with discomfort
We often feel anxious when someone we care for is unhappy, and want to help them feel better so that we can feel better. So we offer advice, thinking we have the answer to their problems and that sharing our wisdom will help.
But doling out unsolicited advice often minimizes the person’s experience, says Tara Fairbanks, a psychologist in Santa Monica, California. It also can stop conversations dead in their tracks.
Resist the urge to resolve someone’s struggles by regulating your own discomfort, she says, and pausing to relieve your anxiety. Practicing visualization or taking a mindful moment can ease inner tension, which will help you refocus on being there for others.
2. Create a safe emotional space
“One of the cornerstones of resilience is the ability to be vulnerable and tolerate difficult emotions and situations, and know that we’re going to be okay,” says Ginger Houghton, a psychotherapist and owner of Bright Spot Counseling in Farmington Hills, Michigan.
You can help people you care about process painful feelings by making your relationship a safe, calming space to share whatever arises. One way to do this: Become an authentic listener so that the other person feels heard and seen during your conversations. Listen attentively without jumping in or rushing them. Validate their emotions and experiences, which you can do by saying something like, “I’m sorry this is so hard.”
3. Do something together
Think about simple activities that might help lift your friend out of a slump, relieve their stress, or gain a new perspective. Then offer to take on an activity together.
Sign up for a class together, kick a soccer ball around, or share insights from a gratitude journal, suggests Lauren Ahlquist, a psychotherapist in Los Angeles. Trying out healthy, restorative activities boosts everyone’s well-being, and the new experiences and quality time also can deepen your connections.
4. Boost their positive emotions
Help people you care about strengthen their resilience by bolstering their positive emotions. Studies show that experiencing positive emotions, such as happiness, hope, and gratitude, helps people cope more effectively with stress and recover more quickly. As Ahlquist notes, this can be anything from texting your stressed-out sister a funny meme to sending a care package to a friend who is grieving. Or suggest creating a positivity calendar, which gives people events to look forward to and thus increases feelings of happiness.
True support goes beyond having all the answers (which, of course, we don’t have). Rather, it resides in savoring restorative activities together and making your relationship a sanctuary for sharing what’s hard to say out loud.