How (Not) To Talk To A Person In Distress

cancer counselling brightonAt various times in our lives we will be faced with deciding how best to support family, friends, colleagues – and sometimes strangers – who are in distress. Perhaps we have a friend who has been bereaved or a family member dealing with a serious health problem. How to be helpful can feel like walking into a minefield.
We might be worried about saying the wrong thing or find that our own fears regarding death, ill-health and loss get in the way of our doing or saying anything at all. How might we be supportive without becoming overwhelmed ourselves?
What Helps And What Does Not
I routinely work with people who are in distress and have also had times in my own life when either I or someone close to me has been struggling with loss, fear, pain or trauma. I have heard many stories about what it is like to receive good support and also a fair few relating to when things go wrong. Based on these experiences, here are some thoughts on what we as a person in distress might want from a supportive friend or family member:

  • to be listened to
  • to be taken seriously
  • to have our listener stay with what we are feeling right now
  • to be treated as the competent adult we are
  • to talk about something other than whatever is distressing us at least some of the time.

Conversely, here are some less helpful responses:

  • to have our feelings dismissed
  • to be pressured to feel differently to what we are actually feeling (‘be positive!’)
  • to be told what to do
  • to be avoided or to have whatever is distressing us ignored
  • to be regaled with tales of others in similar situations who have ‘coped better’ or ‘suffered badly’.

Having Our Feelings Dismissed
As a person in distress, it can be very painful to have our feelings dismissed as unimportant or unjustified by another. When someone asks us how we are, and we actually dare to tell them that we are sad, or frightened or poorly a common response can be, for example, ‘well, there’s always someone worse off!’ (perhaps with an example or two of someone who might well be worse off) or ‘you’ll feel much better in a couple of months’ or ‘shouldn’t you be over this by now?’ The messages received from such responses can be ‘your feelings aren’t valid’ and maybe ‘I don’t want to hear how you really are’. This might be for a number of reasons; perhaps hearing about our fragility, mortality or sorrow awakens fears in the person doing the asking that at the time they just cannot bear.
Often, we might have to make it clear to others what we want from them, and what we do not. It can also be useful to remind ourselves that most people’s intentions are good; they want us to be ok.
Setting Limits
As the person offering support, we may have to set limits as to the level of help and amount of time we can realistically provide. There might well be times in our lives when we are unable to give as much support as we would like, perhaps due to our own levels of anxiety or strong parallels with distressing times in our past. Also, there will sometimes be occasions when it might be appropriate for us to challenge the behaviour of someone close to us who is in distress, perhaps when we see others – and particularly children – suffering as a result.
Since not everybody is the same, we may find that what one person wants from us might be quite different for another. We may have to ask what is needed or check that the support we are offering is helpful. It is also useful to bear in mind that gaffes are inevitable and can mostly be repaired!
How Can Counselling Or Psychotherapy Help?
If we are struggling to come to terms with, for example, bereavement or the consequences of a life-threatening illness, counselling or psychotherapy can provide the time and space to talk things through safe in the knowledge that our feelings will be taken seriously. In addition, we can choose to explore emotional responses (such as anger) that we may feel unable to bring to others in our lives. If we are supporting someone close to us through a distressing time, the therapeutic space can offer the security to talk freely and in confidence about our own fears, rage or sense of powerlessness.
If you live or work within reach of Brighton and Hove and my approach to psychotherapy and counselling interests you, please contact me via email or telephone 07585 910742 for more information and to arrange an initial consultation. Emailing in the first instance seems to work best.
Copyright Caroline Clarke, Counselling and Psychotherapy in Brighton and Hove, Sussex.
Image courtesy of bigjom at

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