Shortly after a family member died, I sought help from a counselor. She asked how much I had cried about it. I replied, “I don’t think I have time to cry.”
“How long would it take to cry, do you think?” she asked.
“I don’t know – what if I’m at work and I can’t stop?”
“Would you believe most crying episodes last about 5 minutes?” she asked. I realized she was right. Whenever I felt the urge to cry at work from then on, I would check the clock, and if I had the time, I’d let it rip. Sometimes someone would notice I had been crying. I’d explain, “Yeah, I’m still grieving, but I feel better now.”
If you’ve ever been in the throes of grief, you know the range of responses people can give, in a noble attempt to be helpful.
“I know exactly how you feel.”
“Have you tried aspirin?”
“Bless your heart.”
“It could be worse.”
Something about these responses, though, often doesn’t fit. That’s because they come from the “righting reflex.” The righting reflex, a term coined by William Miller and Stephen Rollnick, is the urge we have to make someone else’s pain go away, or to fix it. That urge comes from our own discomfort with others’ discomfort. If you’ve ever been in pain and felt misunderstood, discounted, or brushed aside, the reason might be that the righting reflex isn’t about helping you feel better. It’s about denying your pain so someone else can feel better. Other than the really good counselors, those of us in the helping professions are some of the worst offenders. People come to us with their pain. We can write a referral, downplay their symptoms, distract them with data, or keep it all-business. When someone needs to talk, though, that’s hardly helping.
What could we do instead? Seek first to understand, rather than to be understood. Listen with connection and empathy. Ask how they feel. Invite them to tell us more. Let them vent, admit, and share. Expect that it might get uncomfortable. Be ok with that. When we do this, we are more likely to create a safe space for the pain. Like air from a balloon, the discomfort will dissipate into that space, sometimes with – oh, no – crying.
What if you resist the reflex, put your needs aside, empathize, and then they cry? The righting reflex wants to hand them the tissue, embrace them, and pat them with a “There, there,” all of which can be taken as, “Please stop crying.” Resist. Ask yourself, when you are crying, do you usually want these things? Or is it a little nicer to have a good cry with someone who can put their ego aside, and simply be with you and your messy tears?
Resisting isn’t easy, but remember, it’ll only take about 5 minutes.