Michael Bader: Shut up and listen
July 19, 2016
When a friend or loved one has a problem, it's natural for us to want to help find a solution. However, feeling that we need to "fix" the problem usually makes it worse.
The wish to help someone is a good thing. But when such help begins with phrases like "Why don't you …" or "I think you should …" or "Maybe you could …" the result is usually problematic.
The core of the problem usually links with the possibility that our wish to help is motivated by our own discomfort tolerating the other person's stress or suffering. In other words, the impulse to help or fix often stems from the fixer's personal difficulty sitting with, and bearing someone's suffering rather than a purely altruistic wish to ease that suffering. For example, if you are someone who can't stand feelings of loss or anxiety yourself, when a friend or loved one is mourning the loss of a relationship, the death of a parent, being fired from a job, your own buttons get pushed. You feel what the other person is feeling, and you try to neutralize your own painful emotions. However, getting rid of problematic feelings that are being stirred up in you also means getting rid of them in the person who triggered them. Offering suggestions is the result.
For the person being "fixed" or helped, the experience is that his or her feelings are, indeed, burdensome. This never feels supportive or healing. Instead, the person in need of help feels worse — misunderstood, frustrated, or even angry. If someone has grown up in a family in which certain difficult feelings were not acceptable, such as anger or helplessness — if someone tries to "fix" that person, old painful patterns are simply repeated and reinforced.
Empathy, in general, is a good thing. It involves putting yourself in another person's shoes and temporarily feeling what they are feeling. However, if another person is feeling something that is especially troubling for you, then your vicarious experience of that person's emotions is painful. Your empathy has opened you up to difficult emotions of your own that you are now highly motivated to get rid of. Fixing the other person is thus unconsciously intended to alleviate your own pain which is not experienced as helpful, but as impatience or judgmental.
Men are especially prone to be "fixers." We grow up with the sense that we're responsible for others, especially for women, and that means feeling responsible for their emotional, as well as physical, well-being. We're supposed to be "in control" and the protector and, thus, when someone we care about is suffering, it triggers an ancient and deeply embedded reflex in men to do something about it — namely, to fix it. Men aren't socialized to easily tolerate strong emotions other than anger. We are too often so averse to feelings of fear, worry, loss, sadness, or helplessness that we will go out of our way not to have to endure them. If such feelings are internally taboo, then when we experience them too intimately in others, we are highly motivated to stamp them out.
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If giving someone solutions isn't a good idea, then what is? The simple answer is: listen. That's right. Just listen. Be curious and receptive and attempt, first and foremost, to understand the other person's experience. Most of us grew up in families where such simple curiosity and listening were the exceptions and not the rule. When we feel seen and understood, we feel better and no longer alone. We have the new and comforting experience that our feelings matter, that we're important enough to matter. Being understood is intrinsically healing.
Michael Bader, DMH, is a psychologist in private practice in Grass Valley. He can be contacted at email@example.com.