How do you respond when faced with a loved one or someone you care about who is deeply upset?
This individual could be a child, a partner, a friend, or anyone you care about.
Are you the type of person who offers loving hugs, provides tissues for their tears, or perhaps tries to fix their problems?
As humans, we naturally have an emotional reaction when we witness someone we love and care about in pain or distress. Often this reaction comes in the form of anxiety - a drive that makes us want to do something, to take an action stems that will simultaneously help the person we care about AND ALSO get rid of our own anxiety.
In my experience as a Licensed Marriage and Family, with nearly a decade of working with parents, couples and families, I feel pretty confident in sharing a general rule of thumb: acting out of anxiety is never usually a good thing. An enlightening article published in the New York Times delves into this very topic, and I highly recommend giving it a read:
1. It is a common instinct to jump in and try to fix the problem, offering solutions or providing advice. However, those who impulsively rush to fix things without taking the time to truly understand the other person are often doing so to ease their own anxiety rather than genuinely helping. You might find yourself bulldozing over the real concern, ignoring feelings or missing the point.
2. Different problems and emotions require different approaches. As a parent, partner, or friend, it is crucial to acknowledge that not everyone will respond to the same gestures of comfort. While some may find solace in a hug when feeling sad, it is unwise to assume that this approach will work for everyone in all emotional situations.
3. Just because you appreciate receiving advice when you feel uncertain does not mean that your child, partner, or friend desires advice when they are in a similar state. We cannot assume that our preferences align with the preferences of others.
So, what should you do in such situations?
The answer lies in asking rather than assuming.
Instead of offering unsolicited suggestions, pause and ask the person in distress how you can support them.
Do you want to be helped, heard, or hugged?
This approach is truly genius. By inquiring about their needs, you give them a sense of agency and offer various options in case they are too overwhelmed to articulate their requirements.
Navigating the emotions of others requires empathy and understanding. Choosing to ask rather than assume ensures you provide the right support at the right time. This simple act of asking can really be the most loving thing you can do when someone you care about is upset.