Sometimes all it takes is to Listen

Over the past few weeks/months, a lot has been said (and written) about mental health in these challenging times. From tricks to make your garden look like the great outdoors, to how to balance work and personal life now that everything happens in the same space, to actual depression struggles. I am not qualified to write about either of these things (just as an example, my sister likes to remind me how she thinks of me when she reads things like “I killed an artificial plant” – I shall not confirm nor deny this has happened before). This is a slightly different kind of post. It’s about how to support a friend who is struggling, without hurting them in the process. 

Confused? Maybe when a friend shared a negative feeling or struggle with you in the past, you have found yourself saying things like “Don’t think like that”, “It’s all going to be fine in the end” or the likes. Even if these things sound supportive and optimistic, they often have the effect of not helping them feel validated, and maybe even making them feel guilty over how they are feeling. You are basically saying “don’t feel the way you are feeling”. A little how when you say to a stressed person not to stress – does that ever actually work?

But you want to be a good and supportive friend, so what to say instead? I had a chat with my friend Patrícia, who happens to be a therapist, about this apparent conundrum.

First, say nothing. Give them time and space to talk. We so often interrupt to say something we think is supportive, when the best support is giving them the opportunity to express themselves. They may sometimes look like they are talking incoherently and messily – don’t interrupt. This is an important process to organise the thoughts, the feelings.

Second, when you finally talk, don’t try to fix their issues. More often than not, this has the effect of sounding dismissive. Then the person you are talking to will see you as someone who is not worth talking to, sharing with, and will crawl deeper into themselves. Just be there, be supportive by listening. My friend had a really nice tip for this – if you don’t know what to say, repeat to them what they just said and add a little word of understanding and empathy.

Third, make it personal. They are your friend, you know them. Talk about their personal experiences in the past, and how they can draw strength from a similar situation they’ve overcome in the past. If you feel your friend will be responsive to this, share your own story and coping mechanisms you’ve developed – always making it clear that this is your own story, and may or may not apply to them.

There is no “one size fits all” in what to say – the general premise being that whatever you say, don’t deny them their right to feel whatever they are feeling. “I am sorry you are feeling that way”, “How can I help”, is very often the best approach. And if you are someone going through something and this resonates with you, know this: It is okay to be stressed. It is okay to be sad. It is okay to feel whatever you are feeling right now. I hope that after this bad feeling, a good one comes along 😊

Many thanks to my friend Patrícia Fernandes who found the time between her busy work and mom schedules to talk to me about this 🙂

Image by Tumisu from Pixabay 

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