Helping your friends to deal with their negative emotions

When it comes to managing negative emotions, it is important to, first of all, know how you can help yourself and manage your emotions correctly and efficiently. In the previous article we tackled a few advices that you can follow to manage your negative emotions, however, it must be highlighted that not everyone can easily detect and recognize negative emotions that they experience. Sometimes a good friend sees better if a close person is in emotional trouble, for example, facing negative emotions.  Being able to count on a trusted friend will always have great benefits for us. Connecting with someone who values us and loves us helps us overcome certain situations in life, in addition to giving us the freedom to show ourselves to that person as we really are, without barriers and without having to hide how we feel, is what friendship could be defined.

Empathy is the ability to understand the emotions of others, not to be confused with compassion or sympathy which involves sharing emotions. Here, it is a question of opening up to the feelings of others, while maintaining a certain distance so as not to be overwhelmed – a real challenge for some, because in general we have not been taught to react appropriately to the emotions of others, to find the right balance between taking them too much to heart and disassociating ourselves from them. Very often, we reflexively project our own experiences and feelings rather than keeping a neutral eye on what the other is experiencing and feeling. We sometimes find ourselves having difficulty keeping our cool and responding to anger with anger. Or to utter small sentences that deny the emotion of the other, such as: “it does not matter”, “no need to put yourself in such a state” or “you are exaggerating“. In this case, a more empathetic attitude makes it possible to replace these sentences with others such as “I understand“, which show that we recognize the other’s right to feel these emotions.

How to be supportive when your friend deals with negative emotions?

Before helping your friend, who is sad (thus dealing with a negative emotion), you should know that sadness has psychological purpose – to force us to start introspective process to find new meanings and when this emotion is faced, it should never be denied or displaced by thinking or doing happier things. It should be faced, analysed and not put aside to be forgotten. When it comes to calming a friend, who is going through a moment of sadness, you may follow these steps.

1. Do not trivialize the reason for their emotional pain

One of the most common mistakes that can be made unintentionally is minimizing the problem. You should always keep in mind that for the other person it is something important, because if not, you would not be going through that bad time. Therefore, our duty is to be able to empathize to understand its importance. Otherwise, the other person may not feel understood and decide to stop counting on our support.

2. Promote emotional release

Let’s say that this friend tells you that he/she needs to talk. In these situations, it is good to keep in mind once again that our job is to be a good support. It will not always be in our hands to be the solution to the problem, the Band-Aid to the pain or the answer to the sorrow that this friendship drags. The most important thing to help someone who is going through sadness is knowing how to listen. This implies not judging, not explaining what we would have done in his/her place and even less, underestimating the discomfort of that friendship. To provide comfort, we maintain eye contact at all times. We transmit empathy and closeness and understanding. Let’s avoid giving false hope – many times, what worries our friend has no solution. Therefore, let’s not advance realities over which no one has control. Let’s facilitate emotional release, create an environment of comfort so that if the person needs to cry, they do so.

2. Help your friend to name the emotion and break the emotional isolation

Do not force your friend to go out to a place where there are more people or more activity, even if it is to “animate” them. The person who is sad is where she/he wants to be, and you have to respect that. However, what we can do is break their emotional isolation (as long as he/she doesn’t tell us otherwise) by letting them know that they can count on us. To help your friend to name their emotions, an essential step in understanding and expressing them, is a dialogue. You can get a person to push their thinking further and succeed in formulating their needs, by questioning them with kindness. Ask open and neutral questions to help them explore their feelings (“what do you mean by…?”). Check with your friend that you have understood what he is feeling by rephrasing his words: “I have the impression that you are frustrated, am I wrong?” rather than “you’re frustrated”.

3. Offer unconditional companionship

If the other person is willing to have you by his/her side at that moment and you don’t really know why your friend is sad, you can ask if he/she wants to explain it to you, but if he doesn’t want to, don’t insist. The important thing is not you, but your friend who you want to help. Make it clear that you are there to accompany your friend and try to help as much as possible, and not out of commitment or curiosity.

4. Seek physical contact

If it is possible to physically touch the other person, it is good to do so (hold a hand, give a hug, touch the shoulder or let your friend lean on you). However, it is not recommended to do it suddenly, since that would go against emotional attunement. It is best to do this when some progress has already been made in the previous steps.

5. If you give advice, do it as a friend, not as a professional

In cases where it is appropriate to give advice, do not give it as a specialist in the field would, ignoring the emotional state of the other person and transmitting instructions. In the moments in which we are sad, we do not obey these logics, because we lack courage and strength. Instead, advise just as a friend would. In other words, focusing on your friend’s emotional state and how she/he wants to feel, and offering ways to help, not perfect solutions and ideals of what the theory books dictate.  To be able to offer certain advice to a friend, the main thing is to know how to listen first. In other words, if we want our friend to listen to us and accept our advice, we first need him/her to feel heard as well. Listening allows us to connect with the emotions of others, it is the most basic principle of empathy. Only then can we understand how the person feels and try to formulate advice that helps them. In addition, if a person feels listened to, they will also be more receptive to listening to others, so they will better listen to our advice and it will be more effective.

As we have already mentioned helping a friend with a problem, depending on the situation, can be more complicated than it seems. The impotence of seeing a person we love suffer can make us get carried away by our emotions and sometimes act wrongly without intending to do so. Some of the mistakes that we most often make and that we should try to avoid are:

  • trying to convince the person that they have to be fine,
  • wanting them to take certain solutions that may not be the right ones,
  •  insisting that they talk about their problems;
  •  get angry or criticize and reproach their actions,
  • downplay their emotions, etc.

This is a sensitive subject and avoiding those mistakes is crucial so that the relationship is not damaged or harmed. We must help by being able to make the person feel understood, respected and not judged or criticized. Because otherwise the person can feel hurt and the friendship can be affected if the person decides to distance themselves or change their conception of the friendship.  There are times when our help may not be enough, that the solutions we propose are not adequate and that our friend needs other resources to address his/her concern. When the situation of discomfort continues over time and our loved one cannot improve or get out of the problem by himself/herself, it is when it is best to advise them to seek professional help that can provide them with the necessary resources and strategies to face the problem and find a solution.

Helping a friend to deal with negative emotions can be very challenging and not as easy as it may seem in the first place. Remember to be open, empathetic and do not impose your advice or solution on your friend. Often, your friend just needs to be heard, and by verbalizing the issue, they can start dealing with this negative emotion themselves. Giving advice is a responsible step and sometimes not even necessary, as maybe your sad friend just wants to be listened to and not be advised. 

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