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Robert Leahy, Ph.D.

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What Not to Say When Your Loved One Is Upset

Posted: 01/07/11 09:01 AM ET

Imagine that the person that you love is upset about something -- her job, his health, her feelings about the relationship. Let's say she is worried about her health, worried that she might have some terrible illness -- and that even if you think she is going to be OK, you want to comfort her, make her feel better. What are the worst ways and best ways of talking? What should you say, and what should you avoid saying?

Let me give you a hint. The most important thing in talking to someone who is upset is to communicate that 1) you understand they are upset, 2) you care about how they feel, and 3) you respect their right to have their feelings.

What Not To Say

Let's start with the biggest mistakes in talking with your partner. For convenience, I've broken them down into six problematic styles:

  1. Minimizing. This is the style where you treat your partner's concerns as trivial: "It's nothing. Why are you making a big deal out of it?" You are trying to tell them that their feelings are not related to anything real or important. So, the message they get is, "My feelings don't matter to you."
  2. Rationalizing. You treat your partner's concerns as evidence of their irrational and distorted thinking. You try to argue away their concerns. This is a specific kind of minimization, and it sends the same negative message: "Your feelings are based on nothing real. Get over it."
  3. Competitive complaining. In this little game you don't want your partner to "win" by being the one with the biggest complaints. So you start bringing up your own: "You think that's bad? I think I might lose my job!" Again, your partner feels there is no room for her feelings. You matter more.
  4. Fixing. If your partner has unpleasant feelings, you jump in to try to solve all the problems. Laying out your well-thought-out plan, you get frustrated when she doesn't buy into your solutions. This makes her feel less understood and she thinks, at times, that you are patronizing.
  5. Defending. In this scenario you treat your partner's emotions as a personal attack on you. If he is upset, you feel that you are to blame, so you turn it into a trial and start defending yourself. This goes nowhere; you get more angry and dismiss his feelings.
  6. Stonewalling. In this case, you just withdraw. Feeling frustrated listening to her feelings, you withdraw, become silent and sullen and may leave the room. Now she is all alone, feeling abandoned.

What To Say

So, what should you say?

Hint: Your partner wants to feel that 1) you understand that they are upset, 2) you care about how they feel, and 3) you respect their right to have their feelings.

Consider some of the following. Would you like to hear any of this when you are upset?

  • "I know it must be hard for you feeling this way."
  • "I can see that it makes sense that you would feel down, given the way that you are seeing things."
  • "A lot of times you may feel that people don't understand how hard it is for you."
  • "You must be thinking that this really down feeling is going to last a long time. It must be hard to feel that way."
  • "I want you to know that I am always here for you."
  • "I don't want to sound like I don't want to hear about your feelings. I do. But if there is anything that I can do to help you feel better, please let me know. Your feelings are really important to me."

Here are some simple guidelines (from my recent book, "Beat the Blues Before They Beat You: How to Overcome Depression"):

  1. Help make sense of feelings. Tell your partner how you understand that her emotions make sense given what has happened and how she is thinking. "Others have these feelings." "Your feelings make sense given the way you are looking at things." "You are not alone."
  2. Expand the range of feelings. Help your partner understand that there are many feelings -- not just the current one. Feelings come and go, there are mixed feelings, and feelings vary in intensity. "You have so many different emotions -- some feel positive and some seem negative." "I know you are feeling sad, but are there other feelings that you are having as well?" "Are you having mixed feelings?"
  3. Reduce shame and guilt. Help your partner understand that feelings are not a sign of being weak, but rather a sign of being human. "We all have difficult feelings at times. Your emotions are a sign that you feel things intensely, because things matter to you. You are most human when you have your feelings."
  4. Accept your partner's pain. When you love someone, it's natural that you want to jump in and make that person feel better. Sometimes that can be helpful, but at other times it may convey the message that your partner's pain is too much for you to hear. You can communicate acceptance by saying, "I know that you are having a hard time, and I accept that you will not always feel upbeat." Acceptance and validation go hand and hand.
  5. Link emotions to higher values. Sometimes your emotions can reflect the things you value -- competence, love, belonging or responsibility. You can support your partner emotionally by saying, "I know that these things bother you because you truly value them. Things matter to you."

Your partner needs your love -- but your love is an active verb -- to love her or him in a way that they understand that you care, that you get it and that you are there for them. No one wants to feel that their emotions are a burden, or based on some irrational idea, or that every problem has to be fixed by you. Maybe solving the problem might be helpful -- if they want it solved. But showing you care involves making time for listening, being there to hear, respecting the right to feel bad at times.

 
 
 

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