One of the most powerful things we can do to support each other, is be willing to be uncomfortable. It is key to listening with an open heart so as to fully take on whatever the other person is experiencing. If there are actions we can take that would genuinely help someone else, being willing to be uncomfortable with them will help us find those actions.
It is all too easy to act in a way that seems soothing, but has the effect of shutting people down. ‘There, there, don’t cry’ is not an act of giving comfort to a person in distress, it is about reducing discomfort for the person witnessing the crying. It’s a simple and common illustration. The person doing it probably does mean to be comforting, but doesn’t think through the implications.
Another common form – again probably well meant – is to reassure the person in distress. You’re ok, you’re doing well, it’s not that bad… Such statements are a real barrier to asking for help or even getting into the details of the problem.
In its worst forms, the shut down is deliberate. I’ve had people be really explicit about what they want me to do to make them feel more comfortable because they don’t want to deal with my distress. I’ve come to draw a line between well meant things that don’t work, and this kind of reaction. I can only have fairly limited and distant relationships with people who would prefer I shut up if I’m in distress. These are not people I continue to invest in.
It is a different situation if you are also in crisis and don’t have the means to support someone. However, my experience of people in crisis is that they are often the first people to move towards me when I’m struggling. It is my ill, wounded and struggling friends who are most likely to be willing to be uncomfortable with me when I need that. It has been my more well and comfortable former friends who were quickest to shut me down and tell me off.
It isn’t easy being open to someone else’s pain, but it is a powerful choice. It does get things done. It does far more good than vague reassurances or soothing noises. Being willing to hear, to try and understand, and to affirm the person in what they’re going through is a starting point from which better things are a lot more possible.