In Your Rush to Encourage, Are You Missing This Life-Changing Step?

In Your Rush to Encourage, Are You Missing This Life-Changing Step?

“No matter how difficult and painful it may be, nothing sounds as good to the soul as truth.”

- Martha Beck

A Facebook post caught my eye. In it, a friend had outlined a long day of work, school, and family commitments. She began by saying, “I am so tired … ” and ended with, “Something is clearly wrong with this picture.”

 A seemingly-ordinary post, but I haven’t been able to forget it.

At first, that post – and the impulse behind it – felt foreign to me. When I’m really tired, I thought, the last thing I want to do is post about it on social media! But then I realized: while I might not take the same action, I do understand the need driving it.

My friend and I, we’re only human. And at the end of the day, we need to tell our truth, to connect with someone else. We need a witness, someone with whom to share our elation or exhaustion.

That’s why I share stories from my life, then take a deep breath and publish them. That’s why I stay up later to talk with my husband rather than go straight to bed, even if I’m spent.

In The Joy Diet, Martha Beck quotes psychologist Judith Hermann: “… while the unit of human physical survival is one, the unit of psychological survival is two. Without someone to connect with, we quite simply can’t go on. Not any of us.”

Given this, I was intrigued by how others responded to my friend’s post. Most offered encouragements: Hang in there! Breathe! You can do it! Some offered counter-examples of their own hard days. Kind words, all.

But no one affirmed the truth of her difficult day outright. No one said, simply, Oh yes, honey, that DOES sound like a hard day. This seemed like a notable lack.

When we’re in crisis, we need someone to acknowledge our reality, to validate our perceptions by saying, No, you’re not crazy, or, Yes, that is awful. And once we feel seen and heard, then we can receive encouragement.

Our friends jump straight to encouragement because they want, so desperately, to help us. But what if the best way to help is to acknowledge the truth of what we’re feeling?

Deep down, we already know this. After all, we’ve all been on the receiving end of ‘encouragement’ that denies our feelings, our reality.

We’ve had people tell us, “You have to move on and forgive,” when we’ve only just begun to feel anger and hurt. We’re in shock, having just seen a precious relationship shatter, and they’re handing us the equivalent of a broom and Super Glue.

Or maybe we’ve confessed a struggle or secret shame to someone, only to hear them say, “You think that’s bad? Let me tell you about the time when I …” We struggled to be so honest, and now our truth has been minimized, swept under the rug.

Why does this happen? Because we are all afraid of not having answers, of not being able to help. We are terrified to sit with someone else’s confusion or pain without trying to boost them out of it.

Instead, we think of something ‘correct’ to say – something, anything, quick! We may make our words bright and chipper, or quick and dismissive. But either way, they don’t ring true.

But what happens when we acknowledge each other’s reality instead of dismissing it? When we offer nothing … nothing but a faithful mirror? Then, paradoxically, we do something powerful.

When I reread that post from my Facebook friend, I remembered how every major change I’ve made – from moving across the country to quitting my job to starting a business – arose from a similar situation. Every change began the way she’d ended her post: something is wrong with this picture.

That discontented epiphany, it’s valuable. So why do we rush people past it? Fear. We’re afraid that they might change, or that, if we made a similar admission, we would change. And change is terrifying. (As my husband loves to say, “New things are BAD!”)

But new things also bring hope.

Maybe this friend of mine is right. Maybe something is wrong with her picture … or maybe she just needs to get some sleep. Maybe it’s complicated, and maybe it’s simple. Only she’ll know for sure.

But if we can’t know, what can we do?

We can hold up a mirror, reflecting back what we see and hear. And we can hold a space for her, a space in which she can come to her own conclusions about this unpredictable, overwhelming, gorgeous life.

Have you ever had someone else ‘hold up a mirror’ for you? Join the conversation in the comments!

Photo by Daniel Zedda

Caroline McGraw

Caroline McGraw is a would-be childhood paleontologist turned writer, digging for treasure in people and uncovering sacred stories in ordinary days. Download her free ebooks to learn more about creating connections and nurturing your relationships in the real world.

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40 Comments

  1. Peter, thank you so much for sharing my story here today! Honored to be a part of The Change Blog!

    Reply
  2. Loved this Caroline:) Craving to feel understood drives us all. I love how you explained this because I think this wisdom can help us all be more compassionate and authentic – with ourselves, our children and the world around us. Great article.

    Reply
    • Deana, thank you very much! I’m glad to hear that you enjoyed the piece. Compassion and authenticity aren’t always easy, but it sounds like we’re in accord that they’re worthwhile! :)

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  3. Amazing one!It makes me think how we turn away from the real picture and just find ways to avoid our fears ,tiredness.When someone speaks their heart out,it is a human tendency to compare things. We jump to a conclusion that the problem is not big enough to crib about or we just show sympathy towards that person.In all this we fail to understand the main part of the show.Thanks for giving a wonderful point to think about. :)

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    • Sneha, thank you very much! I’m so glad that the post offered ‘food for thought’. :)

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  4. Caroline:

    Thank you for emphasizing the importance of acknowledgement. So many of us feel isolated, even if we are connected by social media. That is because social media is frequently used to speak “at”, rather than “with” our friends.

    It isn’t difficult to feeling alone if nobody seems to be listening to you. Even quietly listening without commenting can make people feel better about having said something. Active listening, where you rephrase what is being said or ask questions to clarify what has been said, can be powerful acknowledgements of the speaker’s value.

    Thanks for writing your post to the power of acknowledgement.

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    • Dave, that’s so well said! Thank you for your insight – active listening is, indeed, a powerful acknowledgement of personal value (and a great way to be a friend too).

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  5. Caroline,
    You’ve called us back to the central tenet of relationship–being with each other in the moment. It’s so easy to try to do something for the other when they really just need us to be with them, not to fix anything, but to be present to them right where they are. Thank for sharing this insight from your own unique place.

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    • Greg, so good to ‘see’ you here! As always, well said and much appreciated. :)

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  6. What you are describing sound akin to Carl Rogers Client Centered Therapy. What you are saying is very true! Sometimes all you have to do is be there for the person and identify with them (a sounding board, if you will) and that is enough to make the person feel better or figure out out what might be going on in their lives that might need revising. Thank you for such a great story!

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    • Dan, what a nice compliment! Thank you – I’m so glad you liked the story. In turn, I’m thankful for the friends who have been ‘sounding boards’ for me in times of indecision and doubt – we all need that now and then!

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  7. You’re right, Caroline. It’s so important to be “heard” and not “fixed.” It took me years to learn this, but now my connections are so much richer and deeper. This was a beautiful post. Thanks for sharing.

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    • Oh, good point, Marcy! “Heard” and not “fixed” … I like that a lot. Sometimes the simplest lessons take the longest to learn … at least, I’ve also found that to be true! ;) So glad that the post resonated with you.

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      • Thanks for responding, Caroline. Your post definitely resonated with me and I wish you all the best.

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  8. Love this post! I want to start doing this more for others. The simple act of acknowledgement is so kind.

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  9. This is great…it’s hard but we all need friends willing to tell us the truth.

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    • So true, Mike! Thank goodness for the friends who aren’t afraid to tell it like it is. ;)

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  10. Sometimes it might be just what we need, to have someone hold up a mirror, so we could see ourselves clearer

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  11. This is great Caroline! This makes me think about my two year old son, how I want him to grow being able to feel. Part of him being able to feel is me, as the parent, not rushing to fix whatever is causing him to feel that way. Not rushing to fix it simply because I don’t want to see him in pain. Instead, I need to be conscious of and recognize that I simply need to hold up that mirror. That the pain, or those feelings, staring back at him is exactly what’s going to allow him to heal, and most importantly grow. It’s allowing him to own and accept those vulnerabilities; those feelings. If I rush to find solutions, I’m only putting a mask over the pain to be exposed only for a later day, most likely much later in life. Does that make sense? This is where my mind took me upon reading your post. Either, beautifully written.

    Reply
    • It is such an important problem in life – to see you how we are-, it’s a starting point in each relation, and I saw, unfortunately, how the children learn to manage the truth, based on own interest. And we are teaching them. They need to feel safe and loved, and they make the best to receive this love. It is true – a root of these problems -is no giving enough time to listen them. To understand and take their problems as serious. And I think that honesty and love, will help each moment to get the right reaction. Without fair. And that our own honesty means that “‘ a kind of mirror”‘ acts in every present moment. A conscious way. I learned this in course of time, and my children are adults, and we have a great relationship.

      Reply
  12. Very true words; and so beautifully written. Only by acknowledging what others are feeling or passing through do we build valid bridges connecting us with their hearts. We become better friends, we become part of the solution, not part of the problem. Thank you.

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    • Dan, thank you for your kind words of affirmation! Much appreciated.

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  13. What a great example, Eric! I really like how you illustrated that – I can only imagine how tough it must be, as a parent, not to always rush in and fix but rather allow your child to feel emotions, even the challenging ones. So glad you enjoyed the post!

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  14. Great post, Caroline~
    Creating space for others, and for ourselves, to experience our present is so power. It is through the container that is created through this process that healing happens. The times when I have felt deeply connected with are the times when someone helps me hold my experience so I can feel and live it in new ways.

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    • Jackie, it sounds like you’ve been fortunate to have friends who have offered you that container space to grow and change! Thank you – I’m so glad you liked the post.

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  15. That’s so true Caroline.

    Like they say – “listen, and let the other person shine”

    Sometimes we just need to be quite and let the other person express himself completely. That is the most powerful thing we can do in a conversation.

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    • Indeed, Vishal – very true. Holding space for someone in a conversation isn’t always easy, but it is valuable.

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  16. Your title says it all Caroline, too many people are in a rush in their own minds, which are busy with their own lives, and instead of thinking and acknowledging it is easier to encourage and tell others what we think they want to hear instead of the truth. Listening seems to be an art that many of us have forgotten, and truth always shines a light on any fear. enjoyed this post Caroline, thanks.

    Reply
    • You’re most welcome, Robert! And I agree, rushing really gets in the way of real listening — it’s easy to get stuck in a go-go-go mode and forget to slow down and really relate. Thank you for sharing!

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  17. Generally in my culture men want to fix so try and provide answers. Women are much better at listening and emphasising. Due to generations of child care maybe ? Carl Rogers has been mentioned. A genius. I recommend ” The Reader “

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    • Thanks, Billy! I haven’t read Rogers, but now that he’s been mentioned twice, I’ll be sure to do so. ;)

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  18. This is a wonderful post Caroline. When a friend shares a problem, my immediate response is to have sympathy and to want to fix the problem almost immediately. But then, I have realised (by your post) that what people really need is someone that understands how they feel. They need a connection to get out of the rut.

    I’m a better person already. Thanks for sharing !

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    • Thank you, Hercules! It’s wonderful to hear that the post was helpful for you in your relationships — that gives me a great deal of encouragement as a writer. Thanks again!

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  19. Years ago, I had a lot of very serious problems in my life, and it was a moment when I met a person who knew all about bio-enenergy and therapy, And at the beginning, a didn’t understood how the things worked, but my health was better and better. One day I understood that he knew all about my feelings and he knew all about my life- past and present-, unbelievable. And I achieved that the whole time I was there, all that he spoke to me was about my own problems, even when he told stories about other people. Or about food. Or equal..Whit the goal to help me to see alone my own problems, the roots of them. He was always MY mirror, and he changed my life. This 15 years experience was painful, because I was in the situation to recognize all my “‘ dirty shadows”‘ in my life or in my head or in my heart. But it happens a real metamorphosis when “‘ a mirror – friend”” get into your life. But you need to have courage, to be honest and to be aware of the amount of such aid.

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    • What a fitting story, Rodica … “He was always my mirror, and he changed my life.” Powerful! Thank you for sharing your experience here.

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  20. It’s about really listening, I think. We’re often too self involved to do it, or too afraid of not having any answers…so we gloss. But listening is a two way street. Sometimes people put it out there, but they don’t really want to hear the truth, either. And we do this dance with each other – in our own way, each dodging the truth, and its discomfort. A great reminder that beautiful things can happen when we all get a little bit real with each other.

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    • Alarna, that’s so true. It does take two to have the kind of real, open dialogues we long for (yet simultaneously avoid out of fear). I like your way of wording it: “Beautiful things can happen when we all get a little bit real with each other.” Yes!

      Reply

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