People often ask me how to help their son or daughter, husband or wife, boyfriend or girlfriend deal with anxiety, depression or anger. Sometimes, the answer is in seeking professional mental health care. But that’s only part of the solution. This is because there is a big difference between mood control/emotion regulation and true diagnosable mental health conditions. Some of the sadness, anxiousness and anger we see is simply the ongoing struggle all of us have at times in managing our emotions. It takes effort and habit formation to learn how to effectively manage moods. Life is sometimes difficult. For everyone. Life is naturally full of stressors and challenges and loss and grief.
Learning how to cope with life events in a graceful and calm manner occurs through the development of emotional maturity. Yet developing emotional maturity is not an easy process. In fact, it is often a very painful process.
Learning how to help others cope with intense emotions, and grow in emotional maturity, is best achieved by empathy. Two significant ways to express empathy are hugs, which are physically stimulating, and questions, which are mentally stimulating.
Seeing a loved one, especially a child or spouse, experience intensely uncomfortable emotions can be incredibly draining and difficult. It is hard to know what to do. We often feel a strong need to “fix” their issues for them, which actually takes away their power and perpetuates the cycle. There is also often a strong desire to talk them “out of their feelings.” Nothing is more impossible. Feelings are feelings. They are not necessarily rational and, in the heat of the moment, they cannot be resolved by intellect or rationalization, nor should they be.
The truth is, the most helpful thing we can do is to validate that they feel what they feel, and then empower them to find their own solutions.
We do this by showing them we support them and by asking the right questions. Then we listen. We restrain the need to tell them what we think they should do. We override the urge to tell them how we handled our last bout of sadness! We stop thinking and talking. And we simply listen. In that moment, THEIR perspective is the one that matters. It does not matter if it is right or wrong, if it makes sense or does not.
When someone we love is depressed, and we are reactive, they may retreat deeper. When we show genuine support, without enabling or “fixing,” we empower them to want to find their own solutions. Over time, as they practice their solutions, they become stronger. This is how to help someone develop emotional maturity. Through support, listening and gentle redirection.
Here are examples:
Person A: “I am so depressed. I feel worthless. I’m such a burden to everyone. I never do anything right.”
Supporter: provide a hug, if appropriate. Then you can say: “I hear you. I am here. I have seen you work through these feelings before. What do you think is triggering these feelings?” Let them vent. Say little. Followed by: “What would help you feel better? What has helped you before? Often they know exactly what they need to do. Encouraging them to say it out loud helps them. If they say something that someone else needs to do, redirect them to what they can do themselves, in the here and now. Example: If they say, “it would help me feel better if my boyfriend would be more considerate,” your response could be, “yes, I am sure that would help. But it is possible he may not change. If that’s the case, what can you do for yourself to feel better right now?” It also helps to remind them that feelings are like storms. They pass. And that you are going to stick with them until this one passes, too.
We can all be a part of the solution, every day. The next time you are with someone who is experiencing anxiety, sadness, anger, you can commit to being the person who empowers them to find their way.