For some reason, this phrase randomly popped into my head just before bed two nights ago. I’m not sure where it came from other than I hear variations of it frequently in my work (for example, when a parent is seeking help for their depressed child, or when someone is worried about an addicted family member), but for whatever reason, this phrase seemed to be asking for my further examination. Perhaps it was also because I noticed my tendency to often offer the quick reply, “I hope things get better for you,” when someone I know is having a tough time as well. At any rate, I was now thinking about how these sorts of messages may come across, and I began to question the utility of such phrases while pondering better alternatives.
If there is one thing that my personal and professional experiences have taught me above all else, it is that feeling bad is often a prerequisite for truly feeling good, despite so much of what many people now believe. In our attempt to bypass many of the bad feelings that are naturally a part of many life events (for example, the illness or loss of a loved one), we usually end up in some fictitious, make-believe, feel-good land instead. I believe this sort of self-delusion can be a dangerous game to play in the long-run. There are times when, despite the best of intentions, our positive psychology prescriptions actually fuel the pain we wish to soothe in others (and ourselves, when applicable). In my estimation, we need to learn that feeling bad is not the same thing as being bad, and something which is often necessary for our psychological growth in many circumstances. When a loved one gets sick or passes, being told to be grateful for the time you had with them, or to look at all the positive experiences you shared with them, can sound like nails on the psychic chalkboard!
Another thing my personal and professional experience has taught me is that everyone wants to experience as much positivity and happiness in this lifetime as possible; therefore, we need not worry that if we find the courage to be with another in their pain instead of encouraging them to flee it, that we will be depriving them of any net happiness in their lifetime. In fact, we may be offering them a pathway to a greater net sum of happiness in the long-term. By processing and metabolizing the pain associated with difficult life experiences, room for that wonderful happiness we say we want for them is created. Without creating that space, we are left trying to grow a bountiful garden in a bed of weeds: good luck—better tend to the weeds first!
When we say things like, “I want you to be happy,” we may be more literal than we are aware. It seems that an unconscious truth is being conveyed a lot of the time when these phrases are used. “I want you to be happy,” might be inconsiderate and dismissive to someone who is experiencing pain and sadness. We might actually be saying to them that what I want is more important to me than where you are right now. Often the person struggling hears this as, “I accept you in your happiness, but not in your pain, so I would like you to change that for me; hell, even fake it so that I don’t have to feel trapped in this discomfort with you.” Now sure, sometimes we are simply trying to be kind and helpful to another, and we may think, “I know they would like to be happier too, so that’s why I want it for them; what’s wrong with that?” Well, should that be genuinely true, I’m simply suggesting considering a different approach in an effort to avoid the potential for those unintended messages to come through. For example, I propose that we first try and understand the others pain and offer that understanding back to them. Phrases like: “I hear that this is a really hard time for you. I’m happy that you felt comfortable enough to tell me you aren’t doing well. If you’re up for it, I’d be happy to hear more and just listen, or… I’m happy just to sit next to you while you feel some of the pain you’re experiencing so that you don’t have to be with it all alone.”
Most of the time, there isn’t much more to say: nothing to be fixed, and nowhere else to be, except in it. And, by sitting with someone and being able to look them in the eyes, maybe hold their hand, or offer a genuine, compassionate hug, we are likely doing far more to help move them toward a genuine experience of happiness in the future rather than helping them construct some lonely, manufactured version of it in the present. Yes, things may appear to get worse for them in the beginning (if they become more honest with the actual depth of their struggles), but it certainly appears to me to be the best way out in the long-term—toward a more authentic version of happiness than would be achieved by employing various shortcut strategies around difficult emotions. How we are with a person is often much more powerful in their healing process than what we could ever say to them in words alone, and it is my encouragement that we focus our attention on how present we can actually be. Should we find ourselves dissociating or beginning to offer advice or other forms of positive feedback, then it may be truer than we would like to admit: it really is about what we want, and not that much about the one we tell ourselves we are trying to help. If that’s the case, then that may be a sign that we have some of our own work to do around the pain we carry.