If you’re feeling helpless listening to your friend, try not to reach for your handy advice bag. You have no idea how meaningful it is to simply be there.
Sitting quietly with someone while they feel their emotions is powerful. It’s power. You’re not taking on their stuff. You’re not trying to fix it. You’re sitting there, being present with them. You’re holding down the fort, creating a kind of safety, so they can feel their feelings. They can feel assured that you aren’t judging them, and maybe that gives them a millisecond when they can stop judging themselves.
It’s a thing. It’s called “Holding the Space.” I don’t know whether or not that should be capitalized. I’ve forgotten a lot of grammar and punctuation lessons, because I haven’t been in school in so long. Do me a favor? Don’t tell me how I can get back to school. Just trust that I’m doing what I can. Cuz, for real, you don’t understand, and it’s fine to not understand. Just don’t play like you do. Just listen.
People always suggest meditation to me because I have chronic panic attacks that impede my living and functionality. I don’t like meditation. It doesn’t work. Stop suggesting it. You have to feel safe in order to meditate. Maybe one day I’ll feel safe. In the meantime, shut up. Same goes for yoga.
See, you’re just talking over me cuz you don’t want to believe that there’s nothing that’ll fix me right now while we’re talking. We might be friends an entire lifetime and I’ll never be fixed to your satisfaction. You’re uncomfortable. You feel helpless. You don’t know what to say or do.
Advice is more about the person who’s giving it than the person it’s being given to. Advice is when someone gets very agitated by what you’re saying: you’ve hit a nerve, and they can relate, but they don’t want to touch that nerve, so they kinda go after you.
Here’s what: say nothing. Have you heard of “Active Listening?” It’s listening without interruption while your friend/partner/client speaks their truth. There are a few steps to it. One is paraphrasing what the person said, or even repeating exactly what they said back to them. A second step might be just listening quietly and saying “Oh my goodness,” or “Holy shit,” or “That’s so messed up. I wish this weren’t happening to you.” It’s important to avoid saying “I understand,” because no one really understands another person’s experience. Say “I hear what you’re saying. You have all my sympathy.”
Now, some people tend to bristle when receiving sympathy. They’re not used to it. They’d prefer advice, I think. I can’t speak for them. Maybe they’ve never been to therapy and that’s very uncomfortable for them. Maybe they’ve never told anyone what they’re telling you, and it doesn’t matter what you say – they’ll be mad at you. Maybe they suddenly found themselves speaking this unspeakable thing out loud and they’re trying to shut it back in its box, instead of talking about it while you listen sympathetically.
There’s a fine line. Hey – I want to make things better for people who are suffering, especially if I love them. I feel helpless and angry and hurt when I hear what obstacles they’re facing, and I want to make the obstacles go away. It’s just that has never worked for me. There’s a backlash. I gave them the wrong advice, or I missed out on a moment of being there for someone by pushing them away with advice. It’s the being there that has the most meaning.