When we encounter a friend with emotional suffering, it’s hard to find the “right thing” to say and do. I do believe that most people just want to be helpful, but all too often, our words and actions are the opposite. Some people default to dumping information or advice. Others become frozen and find themselves at a loss for words. Some avoid the friend in fear of saying the “wrong thing” by mistake.
In reality, none of these are helpful. The person suffering emotionally may not appreciate your well-intentioned pep talk, feel invalidated by a shift in conversation, or rejected by the avoidance.
Here’s something to do instead: hold space for them with your presence. In other words, hold the space around your friend’s wound.
When a little one falls, and scrapes a knee, a caregiver often offers a band-aid. Suddenly, their tears are soothed. It’s not the bandage that heals, but the action of seeing and supporting the wound. It’s the space that the caregiver holds.
In the same way, when a friend is suffering emotionally, the “right words” aren’t nearly as important as a listening ear and presence. Carl Jung supported such a stance when he wrote, “Please remember, it is what you are that heals, not what you know.”
“Please remember, it is what you are that heals, not what you know.” – Carl Jung
One dark evening when I was overwhelmed by an emotional wound, my young son came to me with arms full of his stuffed animals saying, “This might be stupid. But I Googled how to help a friend after a death, and it said to provide comfort. Here’s some animals I sleep with.” He tucked his stuffed animals round me and covered me with a blanket. He sat with me for a brief bit, then left me in privacy. It was the most perfect response. Pure comfort. No questions. Just seeing and responding to pain.
Here’s a few things to offer while “holding space:”
- Offer a hug
- Give eye contact
- Surround them with their comforts
- Let them express emotion safely, without advice
Again, your presence, your essence alone is comforting. When wondering how to help a friend who is suffering, follow the wisdom of Mark Nepo and be “Like stars hold the dark by being light.”