When when we encounter someone who is feeling blue, it’s pretty standard to say, “Don’t cry,” or “It’ll be alright.” We say this because we want to help. We want to make the person feel better. That’s what I used to think, until I was confronted by a teacher in my Marriage and Family Therapy program who called me out on my ulterior motives.
I’ll set the scene. There I was explaining to my teacher/supervisor about the last session I had with a young teen client who was bummed about the news of my leaving. We had gotten pretty close, and he didn’t want to go through that whole “joining” process again with someone else. Understandable, but I was leaving that job, so there was nothing I could do about it. After describing the client’s dismay, my supervisor asked me one question: “What did you say?”
“I told him it would be okay and that he was getting a new therapist that would be able to pick up where we left off,” I answered.
“Why did you say that?” he responded plainly. That response threw me off. Definitely didn’t expect it. I mean, was that the wrong thing to say? Isn’t that the normal response, what people usually say? Why would he ask me why I said it? I gave him a look that let him know I was confused, hoping he would fill in all the question marks I had floating around in my head, but he said nothing. He let the silence linger and continued to look at me with his “I’m waiting” eyes. I had to say something.
“Well, I wanted him to know that just because I’m leaving doesn’t mean he has to be sad and that he will still be able to get what he needs from his new therapist.” I hoped that answer would do the trick. It didn’t.
“Why did you feel the need to tell him that?” Here we go again, I thought. I was stumped. Obviously, he was trying to make a point, but I had no idea what it was. Why was he questioning me like this?
“Why was it important for you to say that at that moment?” he asked, rephrasing the question.
“I wanted to make him feel better.”
“Is that what you think he needed at that moment, for you to make him feel better?” Had I gone with my gut reaction, I would have answered yes, but I had a feeling that would lead to a bunch more tricky questions.
“No,” I answered, hoping that was the right answer.
“So, why did you say it? How were you feeling at the time?”
This one was easy. “I felt bad because he felt bad.”
“So, were you making him feel better or yourself?”
Finally, I realized where he was taking me. “I was making myself feel better,” I answered, embarrassed. The conversation went on, but I think you’ve heard enough. A lot of times, we try to cheer people up, not because we want them to feel better, but because we don’t like the way we feel when they feel bad. Think about it. Doesn’t it feel awkward or even painful for you when you see someone else (especially someone you care about) feeling bad? We’ve all muttered the phrase, “Come on, don’t cry. You’re gonna make me cry,” as if the most important thing at that moment is making YOU feel better.
We mean well. We always mean well, but we don’t realize that when we tell people not to cry or to “cheer up,” we’re really telling them, “You need to get happy, so I don’t have to leave my comfort zone.” Allowing someone to just be in their sad moment means forcing ourselves to hold some of that sadness, too. We have to learn how to allow others to experience their pain, knowing that it will involve us inheriting at least a bit of that pain as well. Despite the urge, there is no need to interject any syrupy sweet Hallmark words. All that does is invalidate their feelings and encourage them to hurry through their feelings to get back to the ones you like the best. That is not helpful. Grief is a natural part of life we all have to go through from time to time. Forcing ourselves and others to hurry through it does not make it go away, and it does not bring about genuine happiness.