Have you ever noticed how desperately we as human beings want to make things better for people we care about? I’m thinking of those times when someone we love tells us something that feels painful or defeated or self-critical or stuck. It’s so natural for many of us to jump instantly into soothing or problem-solving mode – often skipping right past the part where we even acknowledge what the other person has just expressed. How we respond to discomfort can reveal a lot about our assumptions – and open up terrific opportunities for personal growth!
How discomfort commonly plays out in relationships
That used to happen for me with my husband. I would share a defeated, self-critical thought or emotion with him, and he (not agreeing with the perspective I’d expressed or wanting me to feel that way) would jump instantly into offering other viewpoints and solutions. At first I got frustrated and hurt by this, feeling unheard and unacknowledged and (frankly) a little insulted. After all, it’s not like I can’t solve my own problems. I’m actually pretty good at it. But fortunately for me – and for my husband – I once had a German boyfriend whose gentle insight gave me the words to describe what I do need in those moments of discomfort: “zärtlichkeit,” which means tenderness.
So instead of dwelling in my frustration or expecting him to read minds, I started saying to my husband, “Honey, I’m not in a problem-solving space right now. I’ll get there, likely sooner rather than later, but right now in this moment, I just need you to hold me and say something soothing like ‘Oh, sweetie, that sucks. I love you and I’m here with you.’ I just need TLC right now, and then I’ll solve it for myself or ask you for help if and when I need it.” And gradually he learned to just be present and let me struggle and cry or whatever I needed to do to shed the emotion so I could move forward. Now he’s really good at it.
Then at some point, he pointed out to me that I was doing the same thing to him in reverse – jumping in to problem-solving mode when he was struggling. So I myself had to learn to be present and stop myself from trying to fix things and instead say, “Oh sweetie, that sucks. I love you and I’m here with you.” Which takes awareness and effort – and I’m the first to admit I’m nowhere near as good at it as he is!
The temptation to problem solve away discomfort
Problem solving is tempting. And it’s easy to wonder why it would even be an issue in the first place. After all, we’re just trying to help, right?
Let’s break down the dynamic: To start with, you have a person who’s in a place of being deeply embedded in their emotion(s) or a not-so-nice version of their truth, and who is (at the moment) seeing no other way of looking at things. They are experiencing and expressing discomfort.
We who love them encounter this and naturally want to fix it – both for them and for ourselves. We want to reduce the discomfort. We want to shift them to a different (preferably “better”) place. We may even feel some urgency around this.
The emotional hierarchy
I once took a method acting class where one day we did an exercise that called for two actors to enter the stage with back stories that had them each bringing a strong emotional state to the interaction. Neither knew about the other one’s back story before entering the scene. Beyond what we learned from this exercise about acting itself, I noticed something fascinating (to me) about human emotion: it appears to exist on a hierarchy. Any time there was a painful or angry emotion entering the stage, it inevitably trumped happy or pleased emotions. I watched in fascination which emotions got set aside for other emotions within a scene.
I also noticed that if the actor with the strong negative emotion refused to shift out of it, the other actor would become frustrated and helpless themselves. The negative emotion was not only dominant, it was contagious. Not necessarily because of what was being said (e.g., a direct insult to make the other person angry), but simply because the negativity in the other person refused to budge. It struck me that as human beings, we inherently respond to pain and suffering in others, but we do not want it to last.
How to respond to discomfort
As a coach, one of the first things we learn in training is that it is not our job to budge people. Often, when one tries to do this, the other person simply becomes more entrenched. They start defending their position. They may even become more frustrated because now on top of whatever they were already feeling, they also feel unheard.
It turns out the most effective thing you can do in these situations is to acknowledge and validate the other person’s feelings. Not validate as in “yes, you’re right, you do suck,” but rather “Thank you for sharing that. I’m honored. I hear that you’re deeply angry/sad/frustrated/disappointed right now. It makes sense that you’d feel that way in this moment. We all feel that way sometimes. I want you to know that I’m here with you and I care about you.”
We let them feel their feelings, knowing and trusting that those feelings will pass. In other words, instead of trying to haul the person out of the cave they’ve crawled into, we crawl in with them (or sit near the opening if they prefer) and keep them gentle company to let them know they’re not alone.
The role of trust in the discomfort dynamic
That last component speaks to one of the underlying nuances that can be useful for the problem-solvers of the world to examine: how much do we trust the people we care about to survive this emotion and figure out a way forward for themselves? (And how much do we trust ourselves not to get sucked in and live there too?)
If we believe we hold the best, right, or only answers, then of course we’re jumping in with suggestions. What would they do without us (I’m grinning as I write this)? That’s ego. It’s also insulting to the other person because it assumes they’re not competent to do it themselves and often misses the mark in terms of what they really need in that moment.
The gift of discomfort
There’s also another layer to this discussion that I find particularly interesting, which is the idea that suffering and discomfort themselves are under-appreciated. In my mind, these experiences can and should be numbered among our greatest learning tools. Walking into uncomfortable emotions while paying attention can bring about transformative growth opportunities and insights. So denying this opportunity to ourselves through whatever habits we use to numb or avoid those feelings – or denying the experience to others by jumping in and attempting to drag them to the other side of the lake without leaving room for a little wallowing – is doing us all a great disservice.
So next time you or a loved one is in a place of discomfort, confusion, frustration, or despair, take a moment to pause. Take a breath. Look around. Observe what is familiar about this place. Play attention to how it feels. Allow your compassion to express itself through zärtlichkeit (tenderness). Take a gentle moment to acknowledge this reality. Remember that it’s temporary. Remember that you trust this person to be strong and resilient enough to experience this and to learn and grow and find their own answers – which ultimately shape their own unique path through life.
P.S. Of course, there are also situations in which people are truly stuck mentally or emotionally. These are situations that may require and benefit from professional counseling or other interventions. If you or a loved one is experiencing a level of sustained distress that concerns you, please be sure to seek professional medical and/or counseling advice.
This article is the third in what I’m thinking of as my “Discomfort Series.” Why a Discomfort Series? I’m a big believer in self-awareness, and taking a mindfulness approach toward life means coming to a place of peace with our full range of human emotions, including the uncomfortable ones. In this series, I plan to take a look at some of the emotions that can give us a hard time when it comes to truly being our whole self. I welcome your feedback and input as I develop this series! Please drop me a line any time.