Being of comfort

October 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

I’ve needed a lot of help and advice so far in my life. I’ve received it from great people (to all of whom I now say: thank you. This is what you make me feel like doing. Some of the below is critical of you, but it’s also critical of things I have done. You are all very good at advice. Or at least, you all have your moments (*smiling*).

In the bleakest times no one could help. But the rest of the time, there are some things which are always more useful than others. So this is a guide to anyone who wants to (or has to!) help someone like me.

Don’t say: “There are people worse off than you”
I’m going to assume – throughout – that the person on the receiving end of this advice is not a moron. They know, rationally, that there are people in much worse situations than them; people going through things they can barely imagine. But we all live our own lives, because we have to, and feel our own feelings. Reminding a person of the suffering in the world at a time when they are also suffering will add to their pain because it will make them feel a) even bleaker b) selfish. The time to think about less fortunate people – to think about them constructively and compassionately – is not when you’re at rock bottom. This strategy will not help anyone.

Do say: “Lots of people go through this”
Knowing your sadness or strife has been experienced by other, however, is useful – particularly if it makes it feel more normal (“I’m not a freak for feeling this!”), or transient (“People have got through this”). Recently I told a friend who works for a private equity company that I was having a stressful time in a long interview process. He said that for finance jobs it is normal to have up to 30 interviews. 30!! That made me feel better.

Don’t say: “You can stop this now”
Leaving, quitting, walking away – yes, they’re all options. But they probably aren’t the best option. Telling the person they can leave is slightly hectoring, because it implies that they’re making a choice to stay and should therefore be happy with it (which they obviously aren’t). It also isn’t constructive; rather the opposite. You might think that your job as an adviser is to remind this person that “there is a world elsewhere”. It isn’t – it’s to help them manage the world they’re in. The decision to pack it all in and go to work on a farm will not come from you, but from somewhere deep within them. You bringing it up is just a bit teasing.

Do say: “There will come a time when this will be over”
In Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut describes an alien race for whom all time – past, present and future – is equally existant*. The idea that the future already exists and the past still exists can be comforting if the present really isn’t working; but in really bad moments it doesn’t feel true at all. What does help is someone telling me that the problem is time-defined (“By this time next week this will be over”) or, at least, probably not infinite (“You won’t always feel this way”).

Don’t say: “I wish this wasn’t happening to you”
It doesn’t help, because it sounds – and is – futile. It makes the advised person feel like a victim, and the adviser seem weak when your friend needs you to be a rock.

Do say: “It’s not you, it’s them (or him/her/the situation etc)”
Presumably you think this is true because you’re talking to someone you love. If you don’t think it’s true – if you think the fault lies squarely with your friend – you will have to have a different kind of conversation. But for someone in need of comfort, a big danger is that they turn everything bad that is happening against themselves, seeing it as proof that they are stupid/weak/cursed/ugly etc. This is a second problem on top of and above – or perhaps underlying – their upset about the event or situation itself.

Don’t say: “That’s weird”
Don’t tell them not to be upset. They already are, and no wonder: XXXX just happened to them! On their birthday!

Do say: “It’s normal”
Anyone would be upset by that. That’s a terrible feeling to have. I hate when that happens. That’s rubbish! That’s hilarious! However you express it, let them know that their reaction is totally rational. Once they’re stopped feeling so upset you can deal with whether that’s true.

Don’t: Lie
Don’t let comforting the person – or protecting their feelings – lead you into lying to them. You went to their ex-boyfriend’s wedding – don’t pretend you didn’t. They’ll find out and the truth will hit them like a cold clod of earth from a catapult. Try to keep them in the loop, as gently as you can, and eventually the loop will be easier to bear. Equally, don’t tell them their behaviour is rational if you think they’re acting like a lunatic. They need help making reality better, not creating a fantasy.

Do: Be careful with the truths you communicate
There is no need to say that the bride looked ravishing, however, or that it’s no wonder they lost their job because they’re a liability. You like them – help them find a path through it.

Do: Learn about them
(This bit is mainly for partners, who have to deal with more mood swings and petty fights than friends do)
Physical and hormonal triggers are massive. Several people I know cannot function when they’re hungry. I am made tragically sad by lack of sleep though only – a fatal flaw – after it gets to the point of chronic and prolonged exhaustion. Periods are a killer; men must, I think, have an equivalent but without the attendant blood loss.

Importantly, with all of these, telling the person will not help. Make them a  piece of toast; put them to bed. If these aren’t an option, wait it out. At least you know what the problem is. Remind them if you like. It won’t help. But you understanding them will help, in the long run.

I don’t have any more don’ts – which is a good thing. There’s no science to comfort (well, obviously there is, but this isn’t a blog for professional therapists), but we all have to do it. Listen to them. Remember what they’ve said before. Try to get them to go outside. Send them texts. Hug them. Tell them about things that have happened to you/your friends, but only if they’re relevant. Tell them they’re looking nice. Resist the urge to collapse and share your problems as well – they’re in no state to handle it. You can do this on someone else, or on the same person, but at a slightly different time.

Also, this can help. Ha ha ha.

*At least that’s how I remember it, having read some of it when I was about 13 and home ill from school. My Dad gave it to me. Also don’t do this! Or maybe, with hindsight, do.

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