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Just let me feel sad already!!

Girl talking on the phone, looking sad.

In high school, my friends were my rocks. They always understood the things I was going through (the best they could) and were there at the drop of a hat if I needed them. I’ll never forget the nightly phone conversations where we would debrief with each other about the school day and all the problems we were having. When you’re having a tough time, friends can be the best medicine. Even if it’s something simple, like a laugh, compliment or pigging out on your favourite junk food with you. However, in reality, some problems are just too heavy for giggles and chips to repair.

When the problem runs deeper than anything a good laugh could mend, being a supporter can feel very heavy. You may feel like you want to fix the problem for your friend and it feels very disappointing that’s not possible. You might find yourself searching for the right words, only to find that nothing you say can bring resolve to your friend. It’s important to know that you don’t have to fix the problem and it’s likely that your friend doesn’t expect you to either. Sometimes, all your friend needs is to know that their feelings are valid and they are supported.

The latest publication from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology features a study that investigates this exact situation. The study found that in some cases, even though the support offered was built on positive intentions, if it did not match the recipients’ emotions there were negative effects for both the support and person receiving the support. So, what exactly does this mean?  Even though sometimes you want to bring light to situations and show your friend the “silver lining”, it may make them feel less understood. They may just need you to listen and sit with them in their “dark place” until they’re ready to emerge.

Society puts such a heavy emphasis on being positive and happy. While I’m 100 percent in support of the world being a happy place, wearing a masquerade smile isn’t going to help anyone. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve had people tell me to “just smile” or “let it go”. Sure, that applies in SOME situations but if you’re really hurting, slapping a smile on isn’t going to fix what’s causing that pain. Sometimes you just want to be sad and have that be okay. Encouraging someone to be positive can often come from the right place, but it frequently has the effect of making the person feel guilty for feeling the way they do.  It can be much more beneficial to acknowledge that person’s feelings and help them to work through them.

So this could be saying something along the lines of “I understand that you’re upset” or “I’m so glad you were able to reach out to me”. It’s important to acknowledge how the person is feeling so they know their feelings are recognized and understood. Denying feelings or pushing them down won’t make them go away. Sometimes we need to embrace these feelings and ride them out. It’s perfectly fine to feel sad sometimes. Even though someone else’s feelings or reactions might not make sense to you, they are real to them.

There’s an RSA short called “The Power of Empathy” that provides a great explanation of this. The video discusses the difference between sympathy and empathy, and how connection and simple support can go a long way. She lists four qualities of empathy: Perspective taking, staying out of judgement, recognizing emotion in other people and communicating it. These acts can be helpful when attempting to support a friend effectively. Check out the video (it’s short, I promise).

For more tips on how to help a friend visit mindyourmind's Help section!