When I am having a crisis I really wish people would keep their buts out of my struggles.
That isn’t a typo- I know how to spell butt. Or as my toddler likes to call it “ba-yum.” I am talking about the infamous but…
I know you are sad but…
I know you are struggling but…
I know life is hard but…
I know you struggle with an eating disorder but…
It’s something we all do.
But (see what I did there?) it often leaves our loved ones feeling dismissed, unheard, and invalidated. This tiny word tells the people in your life you don’t really care about what they are going through. I was at a conference a few months ago and had the opportunity to hear Allison Chase, Ph.D., CEDS-S speak. She discussed an approach that I think we all need to practice more. This strategy is to move from but to because. Let me explain.
There are a handful of things a person is looking for when they share something difficult they are going through with you, the biggest need is usually validation and support.
This concept is an Emotionally Focused Therapy approach where you listen to a person’s thoughts and feelings and instead of saying “I can understand why you might feel sad/anxious/upset but…” Duh. Duh Duh. I can hear the death of any validating feelings occurring as I type that. You instead listen to your friend, family member, or loved one and you say “I can understand why you might feel because…because…because…” You will look for three ways to validate. Let’s practice.
Let’s say my teen comes home super upset, as teens often do. She reveals to me that she doesn’t think she has any friends and is feeling sad and lonely. What I might say if I wanted to totally invalidate her very real feelings is “I can understand why you might feel sad and lonely but we love you, you have plenty of friends at church, and sometimes you just don’t find your close friend group until your senior year.
Dunh. Dunh. Dunh.
What I meant to be supportive ends up only leaving my teen feeling invalidated and now she feels even sadder and lonelier because now no one in her life understands what she is going through.
Here’s the thing. That stuff may all be true and if you are feeling super guilty right now because you do this all the time, understand that we all do this. Have some compassion for yourself. We are all doing the best we can. Commit yourself to being curious about what makes you need to have all the solutions and determine how you can best validate and hear the people in your life. Next time try something like this:
“I can understand why you might feel sad and lonely because high school is so tough because this year you didn’t really get to have classes with any of your friends and because it sounds like your best friend has been really ignoring you since she got a new boyfriend.
Step back and watch your teens head explode. Just kidding. Mostly.
You see, most of us don’t want for an extra person to give us advice in our lives. We want to be understood. This simple change in words communicates that you get it. You understand. They have communicated and someone sees them. It feels good to be seen.
Have you ever felt gotten?
It is such a relieving feeling. You can rest in feeling that way. Advice just adds to the turmoil, no matter how well-intentioned.
Now I know what you are thinking “but when can I dole out my most perfect piece of advice or nugget of wisdom?”
When your loved one explicitly asks you. Until then there is so much more you can do.
Validate them. Let them know that you understand and get how they feel. Try the “three because” strategy. Seriously, just try it.
What else can you do for your struggling loved one?
Support them. Offer them comfort, reassure them, or give them room to work it out. Fun fact, people are actually more likely to make a change if they came up with the solution. This is actually something therapists are trained in helping client’s do. I can’t tell you how many times parents come to my office wanting instant results. Sure, I can do some things that might make their teen instantly obedient (or I can try my hardest at the risk of ruining the therapeutic relationship). The best solution will be the one the person comes up with after doing a deep search of their own values and acting out of them. This is why most advice isn’t helpful. It doesn’t come from the well of deep resources within our own selves. Small children may need help developing those resources, that’s another talk for another time.
There could be a time to help your loved one come up with solutions, but I think you will know when they are ready because in the meantime your validation will increase the likelihood they continue to share with you.