When we share our struggles with another person, what we are often looking for is to be understood. We want to feel compassion and connection so that we know we aren’t alone in our pain. Witnessing this pain, however, can be an uncomfortable experience, especially when that person is a loved one. In fact, the Latin roots of compassion mean “to suffer with.” For most of us, it doesn’t come naturally to be with another person while they are hurting – to try to understand what they are feeling rather than figuring out how to “fix it.” Out of the impulse to help, sometimes people dismiss the hurt (“Oh, that’s nothing. You’ll get over it”), offer unsolicited advice (“You just need to put yourself out there more”), or use unhelpful clichés (“Things could always be worse”). These types of responses often make the hurting person feel more alone, disconnected and misunderstood. Responses that invite dialogue, reinforce support systems, acknowledge how the hurting person is feeling, and gently encourage problem-solving and coping abilities can build the understanding, connection and resilience that ultimately make pain more bearable.
There are many types of responses that you can use to show compassion when someone is hurting:
“How can I help you through this?” People in pain often know what kind of support they need, but it may be hard for them to ask for it. Offering it removes the barrier.
Asking for elaboration
“Tell me more about it” or “Then what happened?” You may not be able to understand what the person’s pain is about from their initial expression. It’s okay to ask for elaboration when the question comes from a genuine desire to be empathetic. Moreover, sometimes people who are hurting need to tell their story, and this telling itself can alleviate some of that pain.
Exploring fears or worst-case scenarios
Sometimes clarifying the worst possible outcome can enable someone to focus on a more realistic possibility and reduce some of the fear and worry that is causing distress.
“Together we can get through this.” Often feelings of isolation accompany intense emotional pain. Reducing that sense of isolation can facilitate the path to healing.
Encouraging problem solving
“What might you do about it?” Encouraging problem solving stimulates the hurting person’s own abilities to determine what they need to do and usually is experienced as empowering.
Eliciting additional support
It may help to say, “Is there anyone else you could talk to about this?” or “Who else could help you with this?” There is a direct relationship between social and emotional support and improved physical and emotional health.
Stimulating coping resources
“How have you coped with this in the past?” Remembering a previous success can stimulate optimism and remind people of their existing coping strategies.
Understanding cognitive factors
“What are your thoughts about this?” or “What are you telling yourself about this?” Negative or self-critical cognitive statements can increase the intensity of someone’s pain. Helping people understand what they are thinking can sometimes reduce that pain.
Zoë Laksman has practiced as a Registered Clinical Psychologist at The Clinic on Dupont since 2007. Laura Clarridge is a certified executive coach who helps her clients find fulfilling educational and career pathways. Their backgrounds and training have shaped their interest in promoting improved psychological health, interpersonal functioning and wellness. They work together as a clinical team and as the developers of The Clinic on Dupont’s online presence.