When “Helpful” Isn’t–Part Two

In a response to the original “When ‘Helpful’ Isn’t” post, Twitter user @BookMD said something that made me take notice. In fact, her response absolutely nailed something that I tried to articulate in the original post, but I feel like it is important enough to merit a “Part Two.”

Before I launch into that, let me review my list of sample un-“helpful” responses:

* Everything happens for a reason.
* This is part of a bigger plan.
* You can have another baby (get married again, apply for another job, etc).
* You just need to think positive.
* It will feel better tomorrow.

Here is the concept that @BookMD pointed out. While there is power to thinking positive, to looking at the bigger picture, to having hope . . . it is very hard to access that intellectual power when you are FEELING intense pain or loss. And when someone offers an intellectual response when you are in the midst of feeling pain, that creates a disconnect.

In the original post, I described this disconnect as “feeling dismissed.” As I have reflected further, I think that the emotional experience of these unhelpful responses can be more insidious and damaging than “feeling dismissed” implies. The disconnect that is created when an intellectual response is offered to emotional pain can create a sense of being judged.

It’s More Than “Feeling Dismissed”

The sense of being judged can arise because these unhelpful responses, which I have also heard described as “stock,” “cliche” or “pat,” do not actually acknowledge the feelings and experiences of the person in pain. There is not a space in these responses where the pain can be seen and validated. Worse, there can be an implication that the person in pain is somehow responsible for their pain. Clients describing moments of “unhelpful” help report that they often ended up feeling as though it was their fault that they are hurting. My clients say that they walk away from those kind of responses feeling that if they were more positive, hopeful, tough, etc, they would just be able to banish their pain.

The reality is that our feelings exist. They exist even if they are uncomfortable to us or others. They exist even when there are logical reasons for them to dissipate. They exist on their own terms, regardless of the needs or expectations of those around us. So offering someone who is feeling pain an intellectual response is generally not helpful. Sometimes, it can even cause additional hurt.

In the first post on this topic, I explored some of the reasons that people might respond in unhelpful ways, as a well as a short list of suggestions for more validating responses.

I want to reiterate that the most helpful response when someone in pain is often taking the time to listen to their experience. Most folks in pain do not need someone else to help them interpret their feelings, or to try to make meaning out of their struggle. The most healing gift is the permission to feel and express those feelings honestly.

What barriers have prevented you from offering “helpful” help in the past? How have you overcome them? What was the most helpful response you received while in pain?

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