The Next Time Someone Around You is Sad, Do This Instead.

The Next Time Someone Around You is Sad, Do This Instead.

You know how you always forget you’re so thankful there isn’t a screaming child on your plane, until there’s a screaming child right in front of you on your plane? This happened to me last week.

And, as desperate passengers shook their keys and made faces in a futile attempt to silence the human alarm, and couples everywhere rethought their plans to conceive, it got me thinking:

We need to be more comfortable with people being sad around us.

Maybe not in the screaming child form. I’m pretty sure we’re never supposed to be comfortable with screaming children. They’re like, evolutionarily designed to be the worst sound ever. #survival.

What I’m referring to is when we’re around someone who’s visibly upset, and we get all awkward and say things like, “Be positive!” or “Cheer up!” or “Don’t cry, or “Smile!” or “Be thankful for what you have!” etc. etc.

Before you call me Emo and look up motivational quotes, let me explain where I’m coming from: I write this on Christmas Day, which is rarely an emotionally-benign holiday. For some, it’s filled with feelings of excitement, connection, happiness, and calm. For others, not so much. Consider those of us who’ve lost a loved one around Christmas time, or maybe we lost them another time of the year but it’s our first Christmas without them, or maybe it’s our 17th and it’ never seems to get easier, or maybe we’re recently divorced or had our heart broken, or maybe we’re reminded of painful memories from childhood. You get me? In these cases, Christmas can bring about feelings of sadness, grief, loneliness, and pain.

These feelings are healthy and normal. They’re messengers–telling us how meaningful those lost relationships were, or identifying a void where we currently desire fulfillment. These feelings are important, and feeling them is important. If we try to avoid or suppress them, they’ll keep coming back until they get their point across (“What we resist, persists, Bra!”). Yet if we’re curious about them, explore them, and try to understand them, we move closer to a more fulfilling existence. 

In our happiness-obsessed society, we pathologize difficult emotions and tell each other to turn our frowns upside down. Or we pretend we didn’t see their eyes well up and change the subject. And in doing so, we implicitly say, “You shouldn’t be sad/mad/down,” or “Being sad/mad/down is an illness” or “I’m uncomfortable with your sadness/anger/lethargy.” And what does this do? It creates anxiety and shame for experiencing these important emotions, and generally makes the whole experience worse.

So if someone around you seems to be in emotional pain today, or any day, notice what it evokes within you. Anxiety? Discomfort? A desire to make them better? Consider reacting to that person differently than what’s instinctual for you. Try saying something like,

  • “It’s OK to feel whatever you’re feeling right now”
  • “If I were in your shoes, I’d be crying, too”
  • “Is there anything you need from me?”
  • “I can hold onto some of that pain for you.”
  • “I can be your strength if you feel like you’re falling apart.”
  • “Make some space for the painful stuff.”
  • “I’m right here.”

Or maybe you don’t say anything at all. Maybe you take their hand, or hug them, or put a hand on their shoulder and send them a compassionate gaze, or put their head on your lap (um, use your discretion with that one).

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