Just be Present, by Kayla Walker, LMFT
I love this time of year – when it seems that every aspect of our culture starts to collectively turn toward the holiday season. Grocery stores roll out their holiday decorations and pumpkin-spice everything, radio stations start to play Christmas tunes, bloggers and tv anchors begin talking about thanksgiving and gratitude, and we all know Christmas or Hanukkah is almost here. This season brings with it so many wonderful things: sharing time with loved ones, exchanging gifts, and reflecting on and expressing gratitude for our blessings.
But, this time of year can also bring hardship, grief, and struggle. Whether it's the pain of facing the holidays without a loved one, struggling to cope with painful dynamics in our relationships, experiencing stress or anxiety over finances, or, quite frankly, still reeling from a hard and long election season, this time of year can be stressful, painful, and sad. When in distress, our friends and loved ones need the comfort of being seen and understood, supported and loved.
When we see a loved one hurting, it's only natural that we want to help. But in the presence of emotional pain, we often find ourselves at a loss. What words do I say to my hurting loved one? How can I help him/her feel better? What can I do to help? Sometimes when we don't know what to do or say, we find ourselves relying on platitudes like “this too shall pass,” “I'll be praying for you,” or “it will be okay.” Sometimes we shift the focus to reasons our loved one can or should be hopeful, and ask him/her to “call if you need anything.” Even worse, sometimes we just don't say or do anything at all.
So, how can we help a loved one who is hurting this holiday season? Just be present. Sit with your loved one. Listen. Summarize what he/she has said. Bear witness to his/her feelings. Express that you understand. Express that you care for him/her and want to help. And that's it.
Now, I know this can be hard. Listening and simply being present with pain, without trying to fix it, is one of the hardest things about being a therapist! It hurts to see someone we care about struggling. It's uncomfortable to just sit with them while they're in pain or sorrow without trying to make it feel better. But the truth is that when we try to “fix it” with wise words, advice, or a change of subject, we run the risk of minimizing or dismissing our loved one's feelings and experience. Our platitudes and promises to pray come across as “I can't hear any more of this.” Our reminders of all he/she has to be thankful for suggest that our loved one's struggle is silly or weak. Our silence reinforces the idea that he/she is alone his/her pain.
I notice that when I find myself searching for the right words or feeling tempted to give a platitude or say “I'll be praying for you,” it's because I feel uncomfortable with the intensity of the emotional pain I'm witnessing. I feel desperate to lessen it; to make it lighter, somehow more bearable. In that way, my reaction is all about me and my own feelings, and not really about supporting my loved one. Even though I want to support and encourage my loved one, trying to fix it gets us nowhere.
However, if I commit to simply being present– just being with them in the midst of their pain - I find the pressure is off. I don't have to search for the perfect words to impart wisdom or help him/her feel better. It's not up to me to cheer him/her up or make sure he/she is happy or adjusted or “grieving properly.” I don't have to take responsibility for my loved one's feelings, which frees me up to be supportive in more effective and meaningful ways. I can focus on what he/she is expressing to me. I can truly listen and connect with him/her. I can ask what he/she really needs right now.
When we can simply be present with our loved ones in pain, we communicate that we respect their need and ability to process and move through their hardship, rather than avoid it. We signal that their experience is valid, their struggle is real, and we are here for them. We show that we care about not just what happens next – how they move forward – but also about what happens now – how they are coping day-to-day. We let them know they don't have to be alone, and they aren't alone. We demonstrate that we can be with them as they journey through their struggle. And that is what everyone needs to move through this season feeling more supported, connected, and loved.
Enjoy this blog post and interested in more help? Kayla Walker is currently accepting clients and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619-272-6858 x708.