“There, there dear, don’t cry.” It’s the most awful thing to hear when you are crying. There’s no comfort in it, it’s just a very polite way for someone to tell you to shut up while feeling that they’re being nice.
If a person is crying, there’s probably a reason, and that reason isn’t solved by telling them not to cry. Most allegedly soothing and comforting interventions work in much the same way. Cheer up. It will be ok. Things aren’t as bad as you think they are. Don’t worry about it. It isn’t important. There’s no need to be this upset… All of these kinds of comments are a message to the person who is hurt to make the people around them more comfortable by shutting down their distress.
Make soothing noises, and you make it harder for a person to talk about what’s hurting them. Tell someone things are ok when they aren’t experiencing it that way, and you’ve just written over their experience, erased it, told them that their perceptions aren’t important.
We don’t all experience things the same way. We have different vulnerabilities, different histories. Things can be painful and loaded for a person with a history in a way that might never occur to someone else. If something doesn’t seem like that big a deal to you, that’s no measure of how it might make someone else feel. Imposing your response as the truth isn’t going to make them feel better, it’s going to make them feel like they don’t matter.
If you want to help someone who is suffering, start by taking them seriously. Validate their feelings – even if you think they are wrong, accept that this is how they feel. Start from where they are, not where you want them to be. If you want to help, find out what’s happening for them, and take it seriously. Don’t tell them they shouldn’t feel that way, or that it is unreasonable. Deal with the distress first and then maybe there will be space in which you can explore the thinking and experiences that led there.
If someone stops crying because you told them to, you probably haven’t comforted them at all. There’s a very real chance you’ve just persuaded them that you don’t really care how they feel. They may feel dismissed and like their feelings and distress don’t matter. They may have just had a clear message that making you comfortable by shutting up is the most important thing. Sitting with someone else’s pain is a hard thing to do, and soothing noises are easy to make and really affirming for the person doing that. You make the soothing noises, the sad person gets quieter, job done! Only the odds are you’ve added to their load, not lightened it.
Pain takes work. Sometimes it means being uncomfortable. If you aren’t willing or able to be uncomfortable in order to help alleviate someone else’s distress, it is important to know that and handle it honestly. It is better to say that you can’t help, than it is to shut the other person down.