Have you ever tried to support a loved one who is struggling or going through a challenging time, only to find the person shut off from you or react negatively to what you said? Were you left dumbfounded as to what you did or why what you said had this particular effect?
Would you be interested in embracing a more effective communication approach, in these situations, rather than one that seems to further hurt the other person and sometimes create a rift?
As a therapist working 1 on 1 with clients for nearly 20 years I can vouch for the type of communication that is supportive and the kind of approach that engenders trust and safety rather than alienation and despair. It is understandable that you, as the one supporting another, can sometimes be emotionally triggered in the relating dynamic and respond in reactive ways. It can be hard to maintain a balance between staying connected with yourself if your own emotions are being activated whilst remaining present and available for another.
Another factor that can get in the way are the engrained, defensive habits we’ve continued to enact as a result of what was modelled to us as a child. Or, perhaps you developed a style of responding to others based on a need to protect yourself psychologically from the intense energy of others. As very young children we do not yet have adequately formed boundaries nor the independent status or capability to deal with intense emotional energy in the way a functional adult can. Thus, now when your loved one is in the throes of strong emotion, whether it be grief, fear or anger you can still unconsciously default to the same sense of vulnerability and helplessness that you experienced as a child. It is no wonder many people have adopted a further mechanism to manage this vulnerability by trying to immediately reduce the other person’s emotional charge, fix or solve the problem on a mental level or to deny the significance of it.
This approach, however, is experienced as an invalidation of what the other person is currently experiencing. It might look like:
- rushing the person through their process, for example, by telling them everything’s going to be fine or that it’s no big deal (when right now this is not a reality they can connect to)
- telling the person to ‘just be positive’ which reinforces that the feelings they are experiencing and the sensations alive in their body are not ok and not welcome
Let me share with you some healthier ways to respond to your loved ones in order to preserve, take care of and deeply grow the relationships we treasure in our life:
The most important element to move away from is the sole use of logic and reason. Instead aim to cultivate limbic resonance and Emotional Attunement with the other person. The person who is struggling needs to know that you feel and sense THEM … in real, current time. Their sense of isolation and aloneness, disconnect and dissociation can be significantly minimised by knowing you are both here in this together. The inability to contain and process emotions by oneself is directly linked to not having internalised this capacity. This is usually a result of caretakers who did not demonstrate a consistent Emotional Attunement to the person and their needs, when they were a child. Now, every bit of attunement from another, can complete this psychological under-development, thus playing a significant role in imprinting a healthier new reality and a stronger tolerance for all manner of emotions. Emotional invalidation, however, has the opposite impact and results in retriggering the childhood wound, which further retraumatises the individual.
To the logical mind, positive comments can seem helpful but many simply are not. Because this Emotional Attunement is the only mechanism that effectively supports and heals, your communication should come from this place. This type of communication occurs in a state of surrender to the person in front of you and as a real, authentic response to what you sense about them, moment to moment. It does NOT come from mental concepts, what soomeone conditioned you to say, learned positive affirmations and mis-timed statements or wishful thinking. What is truly required is to first meet and understand the person on the grounds of where they are. At the right time there may be a moment to introduce the person to other possibilities and action steps, but this is rarely the first step. Establishing emotional resonance should be the foundation. The opening to other possibilities cannot be done at the expense of invalidating the challenged person’s current reality. Only when the current reality is held, processed and integrated is the person ready to open up to a broader reality.
When one is heard and understood and accepted as they are currently feeling, in most cases the person will naturally re-open their heart, begin to relax their body and regain their own clarity and wisdom. In time the person who is feeling challenged becomes aware of what they now need and / or the next steps to take, that are right for them.
Although we often want to ‘Do’ or say something immediately to support the person, in most cases we simply need to just ‘Be’ with the person … and listen. Listen to what they are really communicating, give them permission to express what they honestly feel and their reasons for it without over-riding their process with your own agenda or shutting their communication down out of your own resistance or fears.
Honesty is essential. If you do not understand what the person is going through do not pretend that you do. When a person is emotionally upset, they are extra sensitive to sensing the energy of the other person. Words cannot be used to fool anyone. In fact, it will only create a greater rift and further self-closure as the upset person senses that you do not mean what you say. Instead, be honest and tell them that you wish you could understand better but that you don’t. You can ask them to further elaborate on their experience so you can better understand them or you can offer to get them to talk to someone (another loved one or a trained psychotherapist) who will be able to understand and / or provide a safety that allows them to openly and freely process their emotions. If you choose to, you can also dedicate yourself to learning how to develop the skills of attunement so that you can accurately sense and understand anyone in any situation.