When someone is physically injured, we know to stop and provide care, whether it’s offering help with an ice pack or calling for emergency assistance. You stay with your injured friend while waiting for the ambulance or with your child while s/he is being stitched up. We understand that our presence and support are needed while the wound is being attended to. With physical injuries or illness, caregiving expectations are more clearly defined. Deliver a meal, send a card, sit by the hospital bedside, bring a glass of water – we can see the injury and the needs are more obvious. Emotional suffering requires similar care but is often overlooked.
You can make a big difference in your relationships by improving your awareness and skills for attending to emotional wounds. When your child, friend or partner is distraught, your support can help them heal and move on more quickly.
There are three steps to emotional wound care:
- Notice the wound. When your child bursts into tears as soon as you pick him/her up after school, the distress is pretty obvious. But it might show up in more indirect ways – your typically bubbly child is silent for the whole ride home or acts up in atypical ways. Comment on the change you’re observing, “It’s unusual for you to be so quiet after school. I wonder if you’re upset about something.” Even if your kiddo dismisses your observation, you’ve let them know that you see that something is off and have welcomed a conversation. What about the adults in your life? What are the subtle, or not so subtle, signs they show when upset? Rather than probing, “What’s wrong?” just offer an observation, “You seem irritable today. I wonder if you’re upset about something.”
- Just listen. Some people don’t want to talk about their distress, but if your loved ones take the risk to share about their pain, then be sure you’re all ears. When people hold in their pain and ruminate about it, the wound festers and they feel worse. By speaking about the hurt, they can hear their own thinking more clearly, release the emotion and feel less alone. But such healing requires you to just listen rather than jumping in with advice or reassurance. When your spouse shares about the frustrations of a work situation, resist the temptation to offer solutions, unless you’ve specifically been asked to do so. Instead, just listen and let your non-verbal behavior show your attention (eye contact, warm facial expression). Make a mental note of any feeling words and register these separately from the content of the situation. Imagine the feeling words as a highlighter, color-coding the text of what is being said so that you can keep track of the emotion as different from the thoughts and details of the situation.
- Reflect back what you heard. Often we get stressed when listening to people in emotional pain, because we don’t know what to say. We feel pressure to offer insights or advice to help the feeling go away. The challenge of emotional wound care is to resist the urge to fix the situation and, instead, offer company while the person processes the experience aloud. Your job is to show that you’ve heard them by paraphrasing what’s been said back to the speaker. Repeat back the details of the situation and the emotional reaction (remember the highlighter coloring you noted while listening). This helps your loved one know you really heard the pain being shared, and it lets the person hear it for him/herself to gain a new perspective. Often the hurt person can find an emotional shift with just this support. Avoid the temptation to quickly offer a positive perspective. This can leave people feeling invalidated and unsupported, even though your intention is to be helpful. Once they feel heard by you repeating back their experience, and the emotions start to shift, your optimistic view might be more welcomed. But it’s even better when the calm from the connection enables your beloveds to find this brighter perspective for themselves.
Your wound care skills are crucial and especially powerful when you’re the one who caused the hurt. Even with our best intentions, we all sometimes hurt people we love. When we use these steps to attend to the harm we’ve inflicted and apologize, we can more quickly heal our loved one and mend the relationship.
It is hard to sit with people who are suffering without offering a quick fix. In fact, chiming in without listening fully sends the message that you can’t tolerate their emotional pain. By genuinely listening to your loved ones when they’re emotionally hurt, you show a deep level of compassion and love.
Photo Credit: Erik Pot