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Stop Making Other People Feel Better!

3 minute read

If there was a motto for psychotherapy, it ought to be “Don’t just do something, sit there!” It’s all too common for new therapists to try to jump in and help the client fix their problem. And even though I know I shouldn’t, I sometimes find myself pulled into trying to make my client better. Therapists call this the Righting Reflex.

The benefits of resisting this reflex was driven home to me by my client David who, in the midst of therapy, suddenly developed crippling pain. The trivial issues of improving his productivity and getting more exercise were brushed aside by the agony he felt when he sat, stood or walked. The only relief he could get was by lying in bed, and even then, only in certain positions. He was referred from one specialist to another, and each one in turn shrugged their shoulders in puzzlement and sent him onward. Eventually, his internet research led him to a diagnosis which the doctors were able to confirm with a test. But this was hardly the end of his problems, as there was no standard treatment for the condition. Some patients had had success with one treatment, others with a different protocol, and some had found nothing worked. Months passed as my client went from doctor to doctor in search of someone who could help. Finally, after 18 months, he hit on something that slowly began to reduce the pain and allowed him to get out of bed for more than an hour at a time.

Throughout this, David never missed a session with me, although mostly they were done by video from his bed. He’d tell me about his pain, fear and isolation, his financial worries, and the dark places his mind would go when he considered the possibility that he might never recover. What could I say to this? I had no suggestions, let alone solutions. And there was a limit to how many times I could say “This sounds awful.” I felt completely helpless, and wondered why David was spending any of his dwindling financial reserves on me.

After he recovered, he came to see me to tell me how helpful I’d been to him. “How?” I asked him. “You did all the research on your illness. You figured out what it was. You found the doctors here and overseas who confirmed it. You found the doctor who could treat it. I wasn’t even able to offer you words of encouragement.”

But that was the point, he explained. “Everyone else in my life was either telling me I’d get better, or giving me advice. Their advice was well meaning but didn't make me feel better, because I was the one doing the research and talking to doctors, so I knew much more than they did. And their reassurance didn't help because how could they know I’d get better when even I didn’t know if I’d get better? You were the only one who just listened and allowed me to think things through and figure out what I was doing. I always left our sessions feeling calm and knowing I could handle this.”

The mistake that some therapists make, and most of us make with our friends and family members, is to try to make the other person feel better. We can see them tottering, on the very of collapse it seems, and we rush in to reassure or offer advice. Their unhappiness is painful for us to watch, and we feel that it’s our job to help, to ‘right’ their capsizing ship.

Sometimes that is indeed what’s needed — reassurance that this too, shall pass, or a fresh set of eyes that might see a solution not yet considered. But far more often, what others want of us is a willingness to listen and try to understand. When we comfort someone by telling them it’s going to be OK, or that they should just be strong, it comes across as ‘Stop being so upset.’ When we offer solutions to their problem, we’re usually telling them something they’ve already considered and rejected, or have tried and can’t do.

Resisting the Righting Reflex is important if we really want to help the other person. But it’s also important for our relationship with that person, and for how we feel about ourselves. When the Righting Reflex kicks in, we jump in to offer advice and reassurance. And more often than not, the other person rejects our advice and isn’t reassured. So we try harder, and offer more advice, more vigorously, and reassure more enthusiastically. With equally poor results. After a while, we get tired of hanging around with someone who refuses to feel better or do what we advise, and they get tired of hanging around us because we’re always badgering them. And because we’re unable to help, we start to feel like a bad friend, or an unhelpful family member.

So what advice can I offer? (See? My Righting Reflex just kicked in.) When someone comes to us with a problem, test the waters first: ask them whether they would like advice, or whether they want to just think it through together with us. If they reject our first suggestion or our first reassurance, then back off, and just let them talk. Ask questions so you can understand how they feel about the situation, and what alternatives they've considered. Just understanding the other person is often enormously helpful. Remember it’s not our job to fix them, and that we shouldn’t just do something — sit there!


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