In the seven months since I lost my husband, I think I've managed to maintain a fair degree of emotional stability. There are definitely peaks and valleys in this journey, however, and a month or so ago I experienced a Very Bad Week. During that week, I wrote most of this blog post, but decided I should probably let it sit a while before posting it. Looking at it now, I do think that the issues raised during my meltdown might be helpful to discuss even though the emotional storm has passed and I’m currently feeling much less angry at the world.
The primary question that I examined during my Very Bad Week was why, when I'm struggling, the same phrase, such as "God has a plan" can sometimes sound like encouragement and sometimes sound like dismissal. I realize that messages are interpreted by hearers, and that the mood I'm in or my personal history can influence the way I perceive a statement. Still, I do think it's wise for all of us to do what we can to increase the odds of our interactions with others being perceived as helpful rather than hurtful. Here are some of the factors I see as important:
· Validation – I believe that validation is the key difference between encouragement and dismissal. Encouragement acknowledges the reality of a difficult situation and corresponding negative emotions, while dismissal minimizes them. Validation communicates the message “You have a problem,” while dismissal can communicate “You are a problem.”
As part of my work, I occasionally have reason to write about the psychological intervention known as dialectical behavior therapy, or DBT, which is an offshoot of traditional cognitive behavioral therapy. Studying DBT has helped me understand the power of validation. An article on the development of DBT notes that some patients found cognitive behavioral therapy's singular focus on change invalidating and responded with anger or withdrawal. The developer of DBT addressed the issue by adding validation strategies, which communicated acceptance and the acknowledgement that a client’s emotions and behaviors “made real sense in some way." The National Institute of Mental Health reports that a comparison of DBT with other strategies in patients with borderline personality disorder found that DBT reduced suicide attempts by half and more than halved the therapy dropout rate.
I can best understand the importance of validation by remembering the purpose of pain. Pain exists to be acknowledged. It tells us that something is not functioning optimally and alerts us that some sort of action needs to be taken. The pain of appendicitis tells us to get to the hospital. The pain of a sprained ankle tells us to stay off of it so it can heal. Emotional pain can play the same role. When we refuse to recognize the pain in ourselves and others, we negate its purpose.
· Timing of suggestions – It isn't wrong to urge people to think positively or to offer suggestions and advice for addressing an issue. I think that we're more likely to listen to suggestions from each other, though, when we first feel that we've been heard and understood. So many of the Psalms follow a pattern of lament and complaint yielding to acceptance and praise. It's important to get to that place of peace, but I think it's unrealistic for us to expect people in pain to start there. When we give suggestions too soon, especially if they seem like clichés (“Just trust God”), it can feel like we’re in a hurry to end the conversation and move on. It can communicate dismissal and lack of real concern. Encouragement holds back on giving suggestions until validation has taken place.
· Listening – The more we understand the problems and emotions of another person, the more real encouragement we can offer. It’s easy to assume that we know what someone else is feeling, but the only way to approach true understanding is to listen without interrupting and to ask questions when clarification is needed. What’s the main emotion someone is feeling? Fear? Anger? Rejection? Are there beliefs or past experiences that contribute to these feelings? Encouragement takes time to find out. “Active listening” which involves paying full attention to the words of another, then re-phrasing and repeating them for verification can be very helpful.
· Belief – Although it sounds obvious, I think it’s easy for us to forget sometimes that people are the ultimate experts on their own lives. If someone tells me that they always get depressed in April, it’s important for me to believe that, even if my own worst month tends to be October. As I wrote in a previous post, it’s wise to remind ourselves that people can experience the same situation in very different ways and to believe the experiences of others, even if they differ from ours. This can be a significant difference between encouragement and dismissal.
· Equivalence – Finding commonalities is important in relationship building. The problem, though, is the tendency to make commonalities into equivalence. Yes, to a large degree pain is pain. Surely, though, we can agree that losing a pet is not equivalent to losing a child and that having the flu does not equip us to understand the experiences of a cancer patient. No matter how well-meaning our intentions, when we say “I understand how you feel because . . .” and the “because” is something that doesn’t seem equivalent at all to the hearer, it can feel like the reality of the problem is being minimized and dismissed.
· Assumptions – Sometimes people minimize a problem because they assume there are untapped resources for solving it. These assumptions are not always entirely logical. In the chemical illness arena, for example, I often find that people assume that others maintain non-toxic homes I can enter despite the fact that their own homes are not toxin-free. I hesitate to make this next point, because I’ve had some wonderful help from family and church members, and I’m extremely grateful for it. During my Very Bad Week, however, I got the feeling, rightly or wrongly, that the government expected my family to take care of me, my family was relying on the church, and the church assumed I would find help from the government. When we volunteer to address a need it generally communicates encouragement, but when we volunteer someone else it can feel like dismissal.
· Platitudes – It’s easy to fall back on phrases that contain truth, but that have been repeated so often that saying them may communicate a lack of thought or attention to the realities of the situation. Often, the truth contained in a phrase is nuanced. “Everything will be OK” is true, for example, if we take the long view. There’s a promised life after this one, full of joy and free from pain. It’s not true, however, that when people experience difficult circumstances they are then guaranteed no more difficulties in this present life. We all want to believe the world works that way, but scripture and observation tell us otherwise. None of us can see the future and promise someone else freedom from struggle.
· Prayer – Without validation, even prayer can be used in a way that feels like dismissal sometimes. When someone takes time to listen to and acknowledge a problem, then says, “I’ll pray for you,” it can be deeply encouraging. When someone says “I’ll pray for you” without first acknowledging the depth of the issue, however, it can feel like an attempt to avoid engagement. Actually taking the time to pray with someone can be very meaningful and encouraging, especially if the prayer expresses a true understanding of the issues involved.
To everyone who has encouraged me by listening to my concerns and validating them, I offer my sincere and heartfelt thanks. To people I’ve failed to encourage effectively, I offer my apologies. I hope we can all get better at this.