Leanne Chapman Psychology

[ Guidance for the wounded soul ]

Is Reassurance Really Helpful?

One morning Sasha was meeting her friend Sadie to go see a movie and then have lunch. Sadie was catching a train up to the city and Sasha was picking her up at the station to head to the cinema. On her way there Sasha got caught in a traffic jam. She sat there watching the seconds tick by, knowing Sadie would be waiting on the platform, also aware that their window of opportunity for making the start of the movie was rapidly disappearing.

Finally she got moving again, past the roadworks that were the cause of the bottleneck, and reached the station 20 minutes late. Sadie was unphased and had realised Sasha must’ve been held up, but Sasha was annoyed. She had been worried Sadie would think she’d forgotten her, and they had now missed the movie.

Sadie reassured her by saying:

‘Don’t worry about it, it’s a beautiful day and it’s great to be out and about, we’ll just do something else.’

Reassurance makes us feel better…or does it?

This was a very positive response, designed to stop Sasha feeling annoyed and make her feel better. But it didn’t. It seemed the harder Sadie tried to reassure her, the more annoyed Sasha got about the roadworks. She knew Sadie was right – they were still going to have a lovely day – but she couldn’t seem to stop feeling annoyed.

It went something like this:

Sasha:  I’m so annoyed you had to wait this long and now we’ve missed the movie.

Sadie:  Oh don’t worry about it, it’s a beautiful day and it’s great to be out and about, we’ll just do something else.

Sasha: But it’s wrong of them to just suddenly block the road like that at such a busy time of day.

Sadie: Well we’ll just go and look at the shops instead, it doesn’t matter.

Sasha: But who do they think they are just stuffing us around like that, it inconvenienced so many people!

Sasha didn’t want reassurance, she wanted to be heard. The  traffic jam hadn’t been that annoying, but the more unheard she felt, the bigger her feelings got! Sasha would probably have been able to drop the whole thing immediately once Sadie had acknowledged her feelings of mild annoyance. But feeling unheard, her feelings got louder and bigger, until she was actually much more annoyed than was warranted.

It could’ve gone like this.

Sasha:  I’m so annoyed you had to wait this long and now we’ve missed the movie.

Sadie:  I know, roadworks are annoying. I guess we can still go shopping.

Sasha: Yes, I guess I’m here now – let’s go and look at the shops instead.

Trying to make people feel better can make them feel worse

Strong feelings get bigger when they’re not acknowledged. Most of us believe the opposite – we think if someone is feeling down and we focus on it, we’re encouraging them to sink deeper into it. I often hear people talking about how someone ‘wallows’ and ‘won’t move on’. It makes me wonder if the person they’re talking about is expressing negative feelings over and over because they’re waiting for someone to say ‘yes that sucks’.

When they’re met with well-meaning reassurances like ‘well it could’ve been worse’ and ‘at least you’ve got your health/ family/ career’, people often feel like they have to tell the story again, but louder this time. As a society we seem so wary of ‘bad’ feelings, as though they mean there’s something wrong with us and we might need to go and seek help. Expressing a feeling doesn’t mean we’re hanging on to it, it often means we’re trying to let go of it. It’s how we heal and resolve hurts – a normal response to life’s arrows. It’s when we ignore or avoid our feelings that we stay stuck. But we mistake the discharge of an emotion for the emotion itself.

Expressing feelings lets others know who we really are

Expressing feelings, good or bad, is also the way we allow our real self to be known by others. We could all probably do this a lot more freely if we realised we didn’t have to fix each other’s feelings, or decide whether someone ‘should’  feel this way. All we really need to do is acknowledge that this person feels this way in this situation, and though we might not understand why, there probably ARE valid reasons.

Have you ever heard someone say ‘You shouldn’t feel that way’? We don’t have to make feelings go away, they go by themselves as long as they’re allowed to. Feelings are fleeting, even happiness. We might feel happy at 10am, angry at noon, sad at 4pm and peaceful at 8pm.  But when strong feelings are blocked, by ourselves or others, we hang on to them and grow them bigger in the hope that someone will notice and acknowledge them.

We can make life a lot easier for ourselves by giving up our need to reassure and focusing instead on accepting that others feel what they feel, and so do we.

 

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13 Comments

  1. I am really going to use this when traveling with my boyfriend this week. On a past trip he got quite “bent out of shape” about a delay that caused us to miss a connecting flight. My comments in the nature of trying to get him into acceptance and calm did not help, and he kept reiterating how mad he was and how unfair it was. I finally was just quiet about it because I couldn’t seem to help him. I can see now where I went wrong. I need to acknowledge how he is feeling so he feels heard. Thanks for this.

    • Leanne Chapman

      September 10, 2012 at 2:39 pm

      Good for you Sue for seeing this and being willing to try something different. Love to hear how it goes 🙂

  2. Hmm I just learned this lesson the hard way. Eldest child was telling me about her latest work woes, and prefaced it by saying, “I don’t want advice, I just want you to LISTEN.”

    Definitely info I needed.
    Thanks so much, Leanne

  3. I’ve found that one of the greatest gifts I can give a good friend is to give them a space where it’s OK to be not-OK. They don’t have to be positive or coping perfectly or at peace or whatever – they can just be however they are.

    I think when I realised that a lot of trying to make someone else feel better is *actually* a selfish desire to not have to be in the presence of their pain (or annoyance or sadness or frustration), it got a lot easier to take myself out of the equation and simply allow them to be who they are at that moment.

    I should mention I still haven’t got this down pat with anger yet – but it’s a work in progress 🙂

    Blessings, and thank you for a thought-provoking read.

    TANJA

    • Leanne Chapman

      September 10, 2012 at 2:37 pm

      Yes Tanja I totally agree that a lot of reassurance is about ‘can you please stop feeling bad so I can stop worrying about you and feeling helpless’. It truly is a gift to just be with the feelings but yes anger is a tricky one!

  4. Leanne, thanks so much for this post! Offering empathy rather than platitudes is at the heart of Brené Brown’s shame resilience work, and that’s what I’m reminded of here. I know it’s true for me–I can’t even think about finding solutions or altering plans if I feel like the people I’m with aren’t really hearing me. Once that’s done, I can move on.

  5. Oh I agree. Sometimes we definitely need to be with our feelings, and to have them heard by another. However, there are times when I do welcome reassurance …like when I’m feeling particularly vulnerable or down on myself. I guess it depends on the situation and person, but I agree with you that culturally there’s a tendency to talk people out of their emotions, which is rarely helpful.

    • Leanne Chapman

      September 10, 2012 at 2:40 pm

      Samantha, agreed – there are times you just need someone to tell you it will be alright.

  6. Wow Leanne…that is some incredible information. Thank you so much. With my daughter going through so much my husband and I often try to reassure her. Sometimes it was just what she needed and other times it was the exact opposite and only made her feel worse. She was able to say it wasn’t helpful but I just wasn’t getting why…your article really helped me get it.

    Is their a way to do both? Could Sadie have said “I know, roadworks are annoying, and then it’s a beautiful day and it’s great to be out and about, we’ll just do something else.”

    Or would that make it less effective in the essence of the other lady feeling “being heard?”

    You are the best!

    • Leanne Chapman

      September 7, 2012 at 11:22 pm

      Hi Jill, I think it’s sometimes ok to add the reassurance AFTER acknowledging the feeling. It’s only a problem when it’s used to avoid dealing with someone’s feelings altogether.
      I agree with Samantha that at times you just have a bad day and you want someone to tell you it will be alright.
      But when you’re feeling down and try to express it and someone tells you to look on the bright side, it leaves you feeling more alone.
      As long as your daughter feels heard and understood, then you could use reassurance tentatively, eg. ‘would it be easier if you looked at it this way…?’.
      Just a suggestion 🙂

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