As a therapist, here’s a question I get asked a lot: How do you listen to people’s problems all day? Don’t you get burned out?
In all honesty, I have worked on my ability to be present and accountable for my clients without taking on their feelings. You can imagine that I see people who are anxious, uncomfortable, lost, sad, frustrated, and traumatized. I hear people’s darkest thoughts about the most challenging times. As a compassionate person, it’s only natural for me to feel their pain, too.
However, I have worked on better managing my emotions around others’ discomfort because I get a lot of practice. And I know it’s better for myself and my clients to remain objective and clear-minded. The ability to manage yourself in the presence of other people’s anxiety and difficult emotions is an ability that can be practiced and strengthened within all of your relationships.
Below are five skills I have learned that have helped me to effectively and respectfully deal with other people’s challenging emotions. Learning to implement and strengthen these skills will help you keep calm in every relationship in your life, especially the most important ones.
1. See Emotions as a Symptom, Not a Problem to Get Rid Of
When someone we care about is very anxious, overwhelmed with sadness, or frustrated, it’s natural to see their emotions as the problem. We feel pulled into action, thinking their challenging emotions must be taken care of and resolved as quickly as possible. This is why we often give advice and try to “solve” their problems when the people we care about are upset.
However, as I’m sure you’ve learned, advising someone who is very anxious usually isn’t helpful. What if instead of seeing emotions as the problem, we see them as a symptom that lets the person experiencing them know that there is a bigger issue? So, in actuality, their emotions serve a purpose, and instead of trying to solve their problem, we can get curious about what is happening.
Viewing someone’s emotions as a problem makes us think emotions are destructive. When we think of something as wrong, we believe it must be eliminated immediately. On the other hand, thinking of it as a symptom puts us in a mindset of curiosity. When we’re curious about another person’s emotions, it helps us to be validating and empathetic, which is what most people experiencing strong, painful emotions need.
Some curiosity-driven questions look like this:
- What is it like for you to be experiencing these emotions?
- What is your best theory for why you are feeling this way?
- Even though you don’t like feeling this way, what do you think this emotion is telling you?
When you shift from problem thinking to curious thinking, your mindset becomes driven by interest, which is more helpful for you and the upset person. When someone you care about is having a hard time, try to understand how and why they feel that way. Think about when you’re upset. How is it that you like to be comforted?
2. Try to Remember a Time You Felt the Same Way
Empathy is when you put yourself in another person’s shoes and imagine what it must be like to be in their situation. Empathy is an important skill to implement for many reasons; it’s beneficial for managing yourself while another person is upset. Remember when you wore the same shoes instead of just putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.
Try to remember a time when you struggled similarly with difficult emotions. This is a valuable way to appreciate someone else’s hard time because it’s based on your own experiences. The more you can relate to their struggles, the better your odds of being genuinely helpful and supportive, not to mention being less reactive and emotional yourself.
3. Practice Reflective Listening
People struggling emotionally don’t want you to fix their pain; they want to feel understood. This takes the pressure off you to think you need to solve another person’s problem and permits you to listen. So, how do we get out of the fixing mindset and help people feel understood? Practice a technique called reflective listening. Reflective listening means that when someone tells you something, you reflect back to them what they said, either literally or with your own understanding.
The value of reflecting back on what someone said is that it helps them feel like you are with them, that you’re connected and understanding. By mirroring someone’s experience, you’re giving them something far more valuable than advice—you’re giving them a genuine connection.
4. Validate Your Own Emotions
One of the hardest things about being in the presence of an anxious person is the emotions they tend to stir up in us. When deep into a spiral of challenging feelings, having enough emotional bandwidth to navigate our mood and that of someone else is tough. This is why we often react to other people’s moods in a way that isn’t helpful to them or the relationship. Getting better at noticing and managing ourselves early is helpful, and we do this through validation. Validation means acknowledging our emotions and reminding ourselves that they’re OK and perfectly reasonable.
If you are in the presence of an anxious person, acknowledge that you’re feeling annoyed or frustrated, and remind yourself that it’s OK and natural to feel whatever way you feel. Later ask yourself what the most helpful way to move forward might be.
5. Remember: It’s Not Your Responsibility
A mistake I see people make when trying to deal effectively with other people’s problems is taking responsibility for how the other person feels. In short, because you can’t control how someone feels, you’re not responsible for them. So much unnecessary struggle, conflict, and energy come from a fundamental misunderstanding about what’s really under our control.
It is truly amazing how much energy gets freed up when you remove the burden of excess responsibility from yourself. When you stop expecting yourself to make someone else feel better, you can start taking fundamental steps to connect with them in a heartfelt way and become genuinely supportive.
Painful emotions are hard to deal with—both in ourselves and in the people we care about. While it’s impossible to “fix” others’ emotional struggles, there are a handful of practical skills you can learn to help you be more supportive and helpful. Skills like self-validation and reflective listening will help you stay calm and objective instead of reactive and impulsive in the face of other people’s problems.
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