How to you console a crying friend or family member? Well, for starters, telling them to stop the tears will only make things worse. We explore why that happens–and what to do instead.
“An emotion is a complex psychological state that involves three distinct components: a subjective experience, a physiological response, and a behavioral or expressive response.” – Hockenbury & Hockenbury, 2007
Emotions are intricately complex psychological states. Consider the studies of two prominent psychologists, Paul Eckman and Robert Plutchik:
– In 1972, Eckman proposed that there were six universal human emotions: anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise. 27 years later, Eckman expanded his list to include seven other emotions: amusement, contempt, embarrassment, excitement, pride, satisfaction and shame.
– In the 80’s, Robert Plutchik put forth a model called the “wheel of emotions.” Plutchik proposed that humans “mix and match” emotions, similar to how a painter chooses their paints.
Emotions, almost without exception, cannot be compartmentalized.
Perhaps the best way to define emotions is to “explain” them in simple, human terms: every face has a story. You can only see the cover unless someone decides to read you this story.
Sadness is arguably the most misunderstood, abstract, and criticized emotion in the “wheel.” One only need to look at the stigmatization of depression to comprehend this argument.
People raised in a strict environment have probably been told to “Stop crying” – or something similar – during their childhood. Kids brought up this way are instructed to hide their feelings, be quiet, and not to embarrass themselves.
Childhood is a time of immaturity – of discovering and trying to make sense of the world. Are people empathetic and kind? Are people ruthless and authoritarian? Do more people love or hate? Do people try more to understand or be understood?
Children taught to repress their emotions often develop problems. Abuse, intolerance, and misunderstanding are incompatible to a child’s healthy upbringing.
Of course, fits of crying are uncommon during adulthood – but they do happen. Why? Many reasons: anxiety, depression, overwhelm, personal problems, loss, etc.
We shouldn’t tell a child to “stop crying,” we shouldn’t tell an adult, either. If anything, observing an adult crying should ring some internal “alarm” that evokes empathy and seeks to understand.
Some people are natural empaths – and others, not so much. (There is nothing wrong with this latter group – it’s simply part of their personality.) The former group, naturally, is better equipped to interact with and help a saddened individual.
Regardless of where you may fall along the empathy /” indifference” spectrum, there are some ways you can learn how to respond to a hurting individual.
Here are ten such ways:
1. “Tell me about it.”
Some people are more prone to open up than others. To make sense of what’s going on, it’s important to probe a little. This will give you a better frame of reference as the interaction progresses.
2. “Sadness is okay.”
Whether it’s a 5-year old child or a 50-year old adult, sadness is a natural human emotion. Some societal elements attempt to replace natural sadness with an artificial “I’m tough” attitude. There are a time and place for both – but it’s up to the individual. Regardless, it’s important to emphasize the rationality behind sadness.
3. “I’m here with you.”
Sad people are often lonely people. As such, it is reassuring to know that another person is with them – and wishes to help. These four simple words may change the person’s entire perspective on their situation.
4. “I’m listening.”
People crying or sad don’t need a lecturer; they need a listener. Active listening in this situation is crucial. In other words, paying complete attention to what the other person is saying while refraining from adding your two-sense.
5. “Let’s work it out, together.”
(On a personal note, these five words changed this writer’s life.) For someone experiencing sadness/crying/depression/etc., these words are perhaps more comforting than anything else you can say. First, it sends the message that a solution is possible. Second, the person has a “teammate” in helping solve the problem.
6. “That sounds disappointing/hurtful/etc.”
Empathy is a potent emotion, particularly when expressed in reciprocation. When a person is in a depressed state, their thinking is often confined and limited – as if they’re the only ones who possibly understand. This statement helps dissolve this way of thinking.
7. “I want to be here for you. Feel free to contact me when you need to talk.”
Not everyone is ready to “spill the beans” at first. This is common during periods of grief and loss. Eventually, the person may or may not want to speak with someone. In the event of the former, they know there’s someone they can call.
8. “This doesn’t feel/sound fair.”
This statement warrants a bit of caution. In other words, a comprehensive understanding of the scenario helps ensure that you aren’t (unknowingly) enabling someone’s self-defeating behavior. If you can put confidence behind these words, then, by all means, carry on.
9. “I’ve experienced something similar.”
This is real-life empathy – and perhaps the solution to a person’s problem. Similar experiences are not to be hidden in this case. If you trust a person and want to help, this is one of the best ways to do so.
10. “Don’t be afraid to get more help.”
As much as we’d like to help, we don’t always have all the answers to someone’s problems. If the person is suffering from mental illness or domestic violence, for example, your reach here is limited. Of course, you can (and should) help the person. But you should also encourage them to seek further assistance.