This cat isn’t impressed with your advice. He’d rather have a hug.
Have you ever had a friend come to you to talk about something that is bugging them? Or a friend who is feeling down, or angry, or rejected? What is the first thing you say to them?
After a look or word of concern, most of us fall into the trap of giving advice, or offering solutions.
Many of us have also been on the receiving end of this tactic.
It’s become a go-to response for anyone who talks about something they’re worried about, stressed about, angry about, concerned about, or sad about.
We’ve been taught that if there’s a problem, there must be a solution to be found. We think about what we would do if we were in that situation, and then give our advice accordingly.
Logical, linear, efficient. Makes sense, right?
Except human beings aren’t machines. We are all feelings, all the time. Whether we like it or not. (Some people are cool with this; others deny deny deny. They’d rather just be walking brains.)
We’re also very different from each other: what would work for you might not work for me, because we have different values, beliefs, personalities, and outlooks on life.
We’d like to think that we’re putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes, but we imagine their perspectives through the lenses of our own experiences and our capabilities of handling negativity. If we can’t handle our own negative feelings, then it’s harder to support others when they’re feeling that way. We start imposing “shoulds” on each other.
When anyone is really upset or bothered about something, it’s usually because they’re not feeling heard, understood, accepted, or loved. And every time those really painful and vulnerable feelings come up, when they’re immediately met with advice and solutions, it only reinforces those feelings.
If I’m feeling unacknowledged and unheard, and someone tells me that I’m obviously doing something wrong and just need to do it this way, then that response has the effect of making me feel even more unheard and unacknowledged. This brings up a feeling of shame: obviously there’s something wrong with me if I’m feeling this way and no one else is. We tell ourselves that it isn’t acceptable to feel this way. We tell each other that it’s not acceptable to be who we are or feel what we feel. We must be finding solutions for improvement all the darn time.
When we dismiss or gloss over each other’s emotions, it leads to a sense of disconnection: I’m all alone with this.
We might even start pretending that we don’t feel these things, or we replace them with more “acceptable” emotions. “I’m furious” becomes “I’m slightly bothered.” “I’m lonely” becomes “I’m fine.” “I’m afraid” becomes “I’m doing ok.”
All of these vulnerable and strong emotions are hints at our deepest cores, yet it seems too overwhelming or exposing to talk to each other about them.
We tell ourselves that people who feel that way are weak, and they should just be able to get over things, or be happy, or make the most of it, or accept where they are, or just do something different — quit that job, leave that partner, get out and meet people, or try harder. We want them to make it easy on us, so that we don’t have to expend emotional energy on listening and empathizing — which take effort.
We also don’t want to see these things in ourselves.
And we wonder why we are feeling more and more distanced and disconnected from each other.
Disconnection from self
If we do this with others, it’s probably a good indication that we do this with ourselves, too, when we’re struggling.
The pain voice says, “this feels awful and I don’t like feeling awful” and the first thing we do is try to relieve that pain rather than acknowledge it. We try to numb it out, or ignore it, or deny it. We force ourselves to think positive, or to take an action toward achieving a different feeling.
We immediately look to a solution to either give relief to our own pain, or to provide a better feeling. We can even disguise these coping mechanisms as self care. Feeling bad? Have some beer or wine. Go shopping. Watch a funny movie. Eat a whole bag of chips. Smoke something grassy. Workout so hard that you puke. None of these things are inherently harmful in themselves, but when we use them to distance ourselves from our own emotions, they will only have a very temporary relief effect.
We fail to empathize with ourselves all the time, and empathy is the foundation of connection with ourselves.
On top of this, our inner critic likes to get in a few good swings as well. It’s not enough to feel sad, or lonely, or angry, or disappointed, or frustrated; the inner critic will tell us that there’s something wrong with us, we shouldn’t have these feelings, we make bad choices, we’ve screwed up, it will always be this way, no one will ever get us, we’re trapped in this bad place forever.
We’re either in a place of abusive self-criticism or optimistic solution-finding, but we’re rarely in a place of acceptance and empathy.
Acceptance and empathy for all feelings
When we continually jump to the solution first, we inadvertently reinforce our fear of our “negative” feelings. No emotions are inherently bad or good; it’s the meaning we attach to them, via our thoughts and beliefs, that leads to us feeling bad or feeling good.
If we feel lonely and feel ashamed about feeling lonely, because we believe that lonely people are somehow defective, then we’re in resistance to who we really are in the moment. We’re rejecting our own feelings and needs for love and connection.
If we’re angry and feel guilty about being angry, then we’ll never be able to express ourselves honestly. We won’t be able to discern and communicate our boundaries or ask for what we need in relationships.
If we see other people’s negative emotions as weak or wrong, we’ll tend to see our own emotions that way too. We’ll polarize all the aspects of ourselves into “bad” and “good” camps. And because we’ll have a need to see ourselves as good or positive, we’ll reject those parts of ourselves which seem otherwise.
However, if we see all emotions as just our personal truths in a particular moment, then we’ll be less likely to judge them. If we refrain from judging emotions (ours or someone else’s) then we’ll be more likely to accept them. And when we accept our personal truths, or the personal truths of other people in our lives, the resistance will drop and there will be an opening for exploration.
Acceptance is the first characteristic of empathy. If we’re being empathetic, we cannot do it from a place of judgment. Empathy means to sit beside one who is suffering and connect to their emotional experience with curiosity and love. Empathy doesn’t require solutions, or fixing, or advice, or pity, or false concern. Empathy is a friend who says, “I see you struggling; tell me how you’re feeling. I’m here to listen.”
You might have heard the term self-compassion, but I prefer the term self-empathy. Compassion has been defined as “pity and concern for the suffering of others.” I’ve also seen the definition expanded to say, “and having a desire to relieve that suffering.” When we turn compassion toward ourselves, we can have care and concern about what we’re feeling when we’re suffering, but we also have a strong drive to relieve that suffering as fast as possible.
You can see from those definitions alone that pity is unhelpful as it places the non-suffering person above the suffering person. Concern can be helpful if it is coming from an unconditional perspective. But when we also add the desire to relieve that suffering, it again places the non-suffering person above the suffering person, because it assumes that the suffering person cannot take care of their own needs. I’ve discussed this topic in my post “Why helping doesn’t always feel good for everyone.”
Empathy is the term I like to use because it implies non-judgment, non-interference, and care. We can feel empathy for our loved ones, for the people in our communities, and for strangers whom we have never met. It represents the unity of the I/Thou relationship described by Martin Buber.
We can also feel empathy for ourselves, for the aspects of our inner being which are lonely, hurting, misunderstood, unseen, unheard, unloved. Self-empathy is paramount, especially if we’re not getting this support from others.
Be your own best friend and you’ll be a best friend to everyone else.
As long as you keep your advice to yourself. Unless you’re directly asked for it of course. And then try to remember, “Feelings first, solutions last.”
Leave a comment below and share your wisdom about supporting those who are struggling.
How do you empathize and align with someone who is sharing their experience with you? When you do offer solutions or advice, how are they received?
When you’re not feeling great, what do you need from your loved ones? How would you like them to be with you? Does advice help, and when are you open to it?
Keep shining the insight light,