I was just talking about this in therapy today. My therapist reminded me that one of the most comforting things you can do for someone who’s upset or distressed is display empathy and validate their feelings. Indicating that 1) you see that they’re upset, 2) you understand why they’re upset, and 3) that it is okay and totally understandable that they’re upset is incredibly calming and helpful. It’s all about connection and being seen.
This is especially important for me, because I spent a lot of time (especially during some of my formative years) being told that my feelings were wrong – both that they were incorrect reactions to things and sometimes even that I was misidentifying them (“I’m angry!” “no you’re not, you’re just confused.” This upset me!” “you’re too sensitive, don’t be such a baby.”). I wound up genuinely doubting the legitimacy of my own feelings.
I’m 37 and I’m still working on this shit! I still get caught up in a spiral of having a feeling and being upset because I don’t think the feeling is okay to have. Trying to squash the feeling doesn’t work, generally speaking, it just makes things worse – so then I not only have the original feeling, am upset because I think it’s not a legit feeling, and am ashamed that I can’t make it go away. This spirals into awfulness really, really fast.
Empathy and validation are so, so, so important. If people think their feelings aren’t okay, they don’t generally get help with processing them, they try to hide and change them, and that just makes everything worse. My episodes of self-harm have pretty much all been about me having strong feelings I didn’t think were okay to have.
Go watch this awesome video made from a clip of one of Brene Brown’s talks for more on empathy (and how it’s different from sympathy).
As an aside, my therapist also reminded me that the most important person who needs to provide empathy and validation to you is you. Self-compassion and self-validation are vital. We don’t teach them in our culture, and they’re hard to learn, but boy howdy do they make things better.
All of this.