Updated: Aug 21, 2018
It’s no secret that a lot of people are afraid of intimacy. Vulnerability is scary, and many people just hope the other person can handle it without telling them, “You’re weird.” As a counselor, I see many people who want to learn how to open up and share in a vulnerable way, which is a wonderful thing for relationships! However, I rarely see people in my office who are trying to learn how to be better equipped for handling someone else opening up to them. For some reason, we spend far less time preparing to be the receiver of vulnerability and this is a skill we all need to cultivate. It’s important for us to not feel out of place when someone begins crying or emotionally opening up in some other way so that we can actively provide for them a safe place to be open.
We see an example of this need in Scripture with Job and his friends who did well ministering to Job’s need until they began to speak (Job 4:1-13). Job was grieved by his circumstances and shared this with his friends, but when they responded to Job, they made many of the same mistakes we still make today by immediately trying to fix the apparent problem and explaining away the sadness. Even Job’s wife gave him the snappy advice to “…Curse God and die.” (Job 2:9b). Being the fixer and explaining it all away are still two of the biggest pitfalls in responding to a loved one who is opening up to us. Let’s break them down.
Being The Fixer
This is the most common mistake we make when someone we love is hurting. We immediately search for something to do or say that will fix the apparent problem and help stop our loved one’s negative feeling, crying, etc. Trying to fix the apparent problem is a problem itself because:
It minimizes the issue. Trying to immediately fix the problem implies that it is simple. If they are crying over a “simple” problem with a “simple” solution, we’ve made our hurting loved one out to be someone who is unintelligent or incapable of figuring out the issues they are struggling with on their own.
It shifts the focus to ourselves. Often, our desire to end their emotional outpouring is based on our discomfort and not a desire to help them. This can be hurtful to people who confide in us during times of emotional distress. In trying to find a quick fix, we can shift the focus away from their suffering and make ending our discomfort the priority. In doing so, we communicate to them that our comfort is more important than their hurt or need…whether or not this is our intent.
Instead of trying to fix the problem we should help our loved one embrace and understand their emotion. We can say something validating like, “Thank you for sharing that with me” or “That does sound really difficult.” Also keep in mind that sometimes the best thing to say is nothing. When a loved one is open with us about their hurt, rarely are they wanting themselves or their circumstances to be fixed. More often, they want to be comforted and loved.
Explaining It All Away
Another thing we do when we are ill-equipped to deal with someone’s emotional processing is say something like, “It’ll be fine.” or “It’ll be okay. This isn’t that big of a deal.” Such attempts to explain their feelings away invalidates the existence of our loved one’s feelings and dismisses their problem, struggle, or loss. Instead of explaining away their feelings, we should:
Validate their tears. We can help our loved one embrace their difficult feelings and work through them by trying to understand why they are crying and being with them as they hurt. You can say things like “I can tell you’re really hurting right now.” or “I’m sorry that you’re having to deal with this” Even sitting with someone silently while they talk or cry might be the best thing you could do for them. Validating tears goes a long way in supporting someone as they hurt.
Affirm the reason for their hurt. When we care about things or people, we open ourselves up to hurt and will need the freedom to work through our feelings in appropriate ways. This may be through crying, being alone, talking about it, physical activity, or some other coping skill. When our loved ones are open with us about their hurt, we should be careful to affirm the legitimacy of their care for the thing or person that caused the hurt. We can say, “I know how much you loved your pet.” or “It’s so hard to have such high hopes only to be let down.” Convince them that you take seriously the reason for their hurt instead of explaining it away.
With this practical advice, I hope you’re better able to embrace your loved one the next time they’re sad. Please understand as well that these suggestions will not result in our loved one wallowing in their negative feelings. Rather, it will support and facilitate their moving through them to something better and more hopeful.
By being a safe person with whom your loved one can open up, you’re fostering the kind of intimate fellowship that God wants us to enjoy.