How to sit with someone else’s pain

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The past few weeks, I have been writing about trauma—the problems with our working definition of trauma, my concerns about the ways we listen and attend to the pain of others, and an acknowledgement about how pervasive trauma and grief are in our culture.

I don’t want to be the person who points out problems or concerns without offering ideas for remedy.  So, today’s post takes a different angle:  how can we respond with compassion and concern to the emotional needs of our loved ones.

It sounds simple, doesn’t it?  And yet, we so often feel a desire to relieve a person of their feelings or concerns that we launch too quickly into problem-solving or silver-lining mode.  (To read more about the problem of prematurely offering silver-lining solutions, go here.)  These solutions are rarely intentionally offered as a means to shut someone down, and yet they often have that effect.

I think one of the most powerful methods of tending-to involves listening without agenda or judgment.  It means sitting in a leaky boat.  (More on that in a moment.)

“But what does that look like in practice?”

Well, as I have said in so many other posts, I don’t believe in cookie-cutter approaches.  Sensitive listening requires a unique attunement to the person speaking—some may welcome silence, others questions, and still others may want to hear their message stated back to them again and again in order to find comfort.  But independent of these differences, there are some tried and true principles that can guide us in our efforts.

Here are some examples:

When someone tells you how they feel, accept it.

If someone wants to tell a long story, let them.

Offer your undivided attention.

Avoid providing advice or solutions unless asked.

If you want to go above and beyond, some simple statements that reflect empathy or compassion may be welcome:

“What was that like for you?”

“How frustrating that must have been for you!”

“I’m so sorry that happened.”

“That must have been really hard for you.”

Really? That’s it?

The above statements are punch lines for who knows how many therapy jokes, but the simple fact is that these statements, expressed in a heartfelt way at a moment of need, can be deeply healing and resonant for the person who hears them.

Sensitive listening requires tuning into the other person’s feelings and then, based on what you think they are feeling, making a statement about it.  If you’ve mislabeled a feeling or an experience (i.e., a person is angry rather than sad), be open to their feedback.  Try to really place yourself in the other person’s shoes.

Therapists call this shoe-sharing experience “joining.”  It means entering into a person’s world and meeting them at the heart of their experience.  Using this information, the therapist then “attunes” to the client’s experience; they use the same words or language to talk about the person’s feelings.  By doing these things, a person feels truly mirrored.  That is, they are heard, understood, and wholly accepted in that moment.

These are hard concepts to describe in words—they are more easily felt with the heart.  I will try to describe some with imagery, so you can see what I mean.

When I talk about joining and attunement, the mental image I get of this concept is of a person sitting in a rickety boat (in this case, the boat represents some kind of feeling).  For the purposes of this example, let’s pick a feeling that tends to propel people away from the person feeling the feeling:  shame.  No one wants to sit with someone else’s shame.  So, back to our picture:

The person is sitting alone in this boat.

No one wants to sit with them because the boat is narrow and mired.  There’s water that pools around the ankles, coming in through the slats at the bottom.  The wood is damp and mildewed and leaky.

And there’s only one oar.

Offering attunement means getting into the boat.  It means ignoring the damp and the mildew and the lonely oar and sitting crouched, uncomfortably, for long moments in that failed vessel.

It doesn’t mean seeing the person in the boat and then pretending you didn’t because it’s sort of embarrassing to acknowledge.

It doesn’t mean immediately walking over and pulling the person by the arm to rescue them from the boat.

It also doesn’t mean trying to reside in the boat with the person ever after, because you don’t want to leave them there.

(These are all mistakes I have made at one time or another.)

It simply means offering the gift of your time and attention, sitting with them for a little while, with love and compassion, without agenda.  After a few episodes of that, they are usually ready to abandon the boat and follow you to shore.

In more serious situations, there may be a lot of boat-sitting.  Therapists are good at this—we bring our own galoshes—so if you’re feeling exhausted or drained from listening, it’s probably a sign that someone may need more support.

A few final thoughts on these practices:

As for offering compassion or comfort, don’t say it if you don’t mean it.  Use language that feels comfortable for you and the other person.

If you check in with yourself and find you’re feeling frustrated, impatient, distracted, or something else while listening, you probably need some tending-to yourself.

These simple principles are best practiced when you have a full tank.  So, if you are asked to listen and are feeling too frazzled to listen lovingly, you may ask for fifteen minutes to clear your own thoughts before you attend to someone else’s needs.  For many, asking for this is the hardest part.

I would love to hear about how you sit with the pain of your loved ones.  Please send me an email if you have thoughts or experiences you would like to share.

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