By Paula Lau
I had a disquieting experience with a person whom I had been counseling over an extended period of time. The problems this individual had were many and varied. Unfortunately, it seemed as soon as one problem was solved another developed. And as time went on, this individual was becoming increasingly discouraged and unhappy. As most counselors will tell you, this is not the direction we want our clients to move in! So as each problem developed I did my best to re-frame, re-direct, look at the positives, downplay the negatives and encourage the individual that “surely the future would be better.” One day my client looked at me and said, “I think you’re in the wrong business. What you are telling me, I’m sure is making YOU feel better. The problem is you’re not helping ME.”As you can imagine, this kind of feedback stopped me in my tracks.
When I was just getting started as a therapist, a wise and seasoned counselor gave me some good advice, “If someone tells you your house stinks (no matter who they are) you best take a look around. You never know, there might be fish wrapped in a newspaper in the bottom of a drawer in the back bedroom. Even if in the end you decide what they said isn’t all that accurate, it never hurts to look at yourself.” Considering the feedback from my discouraged client, I began to think about how most people react when dealing with someone who is going through a difficult time. Many times we are at a loss as to how to help that person effectively or just to indicate to them that we care and are there for them.
In What You Can Say When You Don’t Know What to Say: Reaching Out to Those Who Hurt author Lauren Briggs writes about things to consider when dealing with someone who is hurting. An interesting tendency for most of us when we are confronted with harsh realities is that we back away, not knowing what to say and often times not saying anything at all. Have you shied away from a co-worker who was going through a divorce, a friend who suffers a miscarriage, someone who lost a loved one suddenly to death, or is the victim of a tragic accident? These kinds of situations can generate a lot of fear in us. We don’t feel comfortable with the uncertainties that life throws our way and so to watch someone close to us experience these things, we begin to mentally withdraw and put some distance between ourselves and this person’s sad event.
Our next reaction is to begin to try and come up with reasons for why this particular thing happened to that person and, even more importantly, how we can make sure not to make the same kind of “mistakes” or avoid that situation ourselves. Although these reactions are both understandable and common, if we want to maintain our relationship with that person, or make it stronger, then it is important that we force ourselves to respond differently. In other words, we need to walk towards the pain, rather than away from it in order to truly be a friend to those who are hurting.
In retrospect, maybe I had in some ways been telling my client things that made ME feel better. In any case it reminded me that the most important thing we can do to help people who are struggling with difficult issues is to be there for them. We can condition ourselves to become a truly caring and responsive person to those who are going through tough times. We can comfort people effectively by reaching out to them in their time of need. We can do this by sending a note, card or email, making a phone call and just letting them know that we care and are available if they need someone to talk to.