what NOT to say to a friend in distress

A bit of science that seems to be really helpful to a lot of students is the difference between “emotion coaching” and “emotion dismissing.”

John Gottman’s lab studied families – parents and children – and noted two general styles of communication around emotions. He called them “meta-emotions.” See, your emotions are how you feel – happy, sad, angry, lonely, disgusted, anxious, etc. Meta-emotions are how you feel about how you feel.

Like, “I’m feeling jealous that my ex is here with their new partner,” is your emotion. “I judge and blame myself for feeling jealous because I really *ought* to be over it by now” is your met-emotion. How you feel about how you feel.

Negative meta-emotions – “emotion-dismissing” – are things like blaming or judging yourself for a feeling or being afraid of a feeling. Positive meta-emotions – “emotion-coaching” – involves being aware of your feelings and accepting your feelings, welcoming them even.

Feeling bad about feeling bad just drains you of energy. Accepting your feelings frees up that energy so that you can use it for recovery.

It goes like this:

Emotion Dismissing Emotion Coaching
Just ignore  subtle or lower-intensity negative emotions.

Negative emotions are toxic.

Negative emotions are punished—even if there is no misbehavior.

“You can have any emotion you want, and if you choose to have a negative one, it’s your own fault.”

Introspection to understand what one feels is a waste of time, or possibly even dangerous.

Feel bad about feeling bad.

“Get over it.”

“C’mon, give me a smile, honey!”

Pay attention to lower-intensity emotions to prevent escalation.

Negative emotions are natural and healthy.

Negative emotions are discussed, given names, and empathized with.

“Negative emotions happen sometimes because bad things happen sometimes.”

Introspection to understand what one feels helps you have a sense optimism, control, and effective coping.

Feel accepting of feeling bad.

“Move through it.”

“You cry all you need to, honey.”

And it turns out that emotion-coaching unambiguously results in better outcomes than emotion-dismissing.

So. To be a good friend to someone who is suffering, avoid saying things that minimize their experience, stuff like “It’s okay” or “It’s not that bad” or “You’re all right” or “Don’t worry about it” or “It could be worse.”

Instead, acknowledge how much the person is hurting and let them know it’s okay that it hurts. “I can see how hard this is for you.” “or “This is important to you.” Or “You’re allowed to hurt.” Or “Sometimes life is supposed to hurt. When you lose something that’s important to you or when you’re afraid about the future, it’s hard. It’s only right that it should hurt.”

And you can also offer hope, along with empathy: “It sucks now, and it may suck for a while yet to come, and it will get better.” Or “You’re strong enough to survive this and find your way through.”


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