One of my all time favorite Mad TV skits is of a psychiatrist meeting with a new patient who desperately wants to find the solution to her biggest struggle; the fear of being buried alive.
The scene begins with a woman walking into an office and sitting down at his desk, full of anxiety and fidgety, in full anticipation of what the expert will prescribe. The psychiatrist then tells her she has five minutes (for $5) to talk about her problem and he will respond, assuring her that she will not need the full five minutes.
So, the anxious woman starts talking about her fear of being buried alive and once she’s done, the psychiatrist instructs her to remember two words. She pulls out a piece of paper to write down his cure to her ailment.
He then yells loudly “STOP IT!” “STOP IT!” “S-T-O-P new word I-T!”
It kills me every time…
If only difficulties in life were that easy to “stop.” If only what we knew we should do we could do; life’s ultimate struggles would fade and disappear just as quickly as they came to be…
I know the Mad TV example is a bit extreme (and hilarious) but the truth is whether we mean to or not, we invalidate what our loved ones, friends or others are feeling more than we realize. This can happen by minimizing the situation, changing the subject abruptly, offering quick solutions or simply by an unknown non-verbal gesture (lack of eye-contact, shoulder shrug, etc.)
Fortunately, finding a solution that leads to relief isn’t as difficult as it seems. The biggest misconception that we have in relationships is that we have to “fix” problems.
For example, let’s say your partner is experiencing an overwhelming amount of stress at work, more than likely the reactionary response is to jump in and help him find a solution, “try taking deep breaths,” “make sure you’re going to the gym,” “can’t you talk to your boss about that?”
Knowing a loved one is having a difficult time can be a struggle…especially if YOU know the most efficient route to the solution YOU are confident they need (am I right?!). However, this is actually the most efficient route to more stress and frustration on their end and here’s why…
When we’re experiencing stress, anger, sadness, anxiety (only to name a few), what is actually happening internally is our right brain (right hemisphere,) the house of our emotions, is distracted and needs to first be addressed before our solution focused left brain can jump in and balance out our emotional reaction.
Meaning – if you are finding yourself wanting to jump in and offer a solution too quickly, although the solution may be exactly what needs to happen, your partner won’t be able to receive it until you have first addressed the emotional aspect of the issue and here’s how you do this…
1) First, in order to better understand how your partner is feeling, you must first practice empathizing – how would you feel if you were in his shoes, what does it feel like when you are stressed out and overwhelmed, what helps you in these moments?
2) Second, name the feeling you are observing – “Gosh, that must be stressful,” or “You seem frustrated,” or “I would be overwhelmed if I were you,” or “That would make me angry if I were you”. (Most think this step will escalate the issue, when in all reality it decreases the stress the right brain is feeling by helping it realize the stress is due to an unexpressed emotion).
3) Wait for your partner to open up more about their emotional experience. Once you’ve hit the feeling they are having, you will notice a shift. Your partner will start talking more about what it is that is causing their feelings. It’s so important to allow space for him to have his feelings and for it to be OK.
4) Again, I cannot stress enough how important it is to tolerate what they are feeling by just being there. If you sense that touch will help, try reaching out and holding his hand or giving him a hug.
5) Watch for his posture to soften. Did you know that 75% of all communication is non-verbal? For this very reason, it is so important to key into non-verbal cues such as posture shifts and facial expressions.
6) When you notice this shift in posture it is a good time to say something like, “All I want to do is help you find a solution. I hate seeing you upset.” In this step, you are acknowledging that you want to help him find relief, at the same time you’re opening up the conversation for him to ask for your help. Be sure to start your sentences with “I” and take ownership for your feelings as opposed to blaming by saying, “you always.”, “if you would…” etc.
7) Wrap up by reassuring your partner that you love and care for him and only want the best for him. Reassurance with physical touch, positive affect (aka – emotional expression) and eye contact solidifies your attachment and is the best way to repair if your partner has felt invalidated by your unintentional lack of validation (i.e., lack of eye contact, changing the subject, or statements like, “don’t worry about it.)
Validation is a powerful way of letting those you love know how much you support them no matter what. Consider how it feels when you are validated. Chances are you could identify with feeling empowered, understood, heard, appreciated and supported (just to name a few).
Extend this practice to those you love and report back what your experience is below. We love hearing from you!
DEFINE’s Emotional Wellness Expert, Jessica Pass, LMFT is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Instructor at DEFINE body&mind. She has a private practice in Houston, Texas, specializing with children, adolescents, individuals, couples and parents. Jessica’s approach incorporates mind-body integration, education and practical strategies to improve emotional wellness, emphasizing all aspects of who we are to live fully and thrive in our relationships.