Before Trying to Comfort Someone, Understand Their ‘State of Distress’

Photo: panitanphoto, Shutterstock
Photo: panitanphoto, Shutterstock

When someone we know — or even a stranger we counter in the grocery store or on the bus — is clearly in distress, our first reaction is often to try to comfort the person. Whether it’s with words or offers of help, we don’t want to see someone going through a hard time. Also, people who are sad and upset make us uncomfortable, so you may also be inclined to reach out so you’ll feel as though you at least tried to do something (which isn’t something you’re likely to realise or consider in moment; your desire to help isn’t usually coming from a bad place).

As it turns out, how a person responds to your offers of comfort or help will depend a lot on their current state of distress. So in order to figure out how to meet the person where they are — and offer comfort/help that they’ll actually be open to receiving — it’s a good idea to figure out which state of distress they are experiencing. Here’s how to do that.

The four states of distress

In a recent article on Clearer Thinking (which we found through Recomendo), Kat Woods and Spencer Greenberg identify four states of distress. Here’s a quick breakdown of the states and what they can tell us about the best way to comfort someone.

Shocked or confused

Common emotions: shock, confusion, surprise, fear, dread, denial.

Potentially helpful strategies for comforting them:

  • Active listening

  • Helping to resolve confusion

  • Expression of concern

  • Validating their confusion

  • Reflecting back to them your understanding of what they have said

Feeling bad and not ready to feel better

Common emotions: intense forms of sadness, depression, anxiety, anger, contempt, guilt, jealousy.

Potentially helpful strategies:

  • Active listening

  • Empathy

  • Validating their emotions

  • Reflecting back to them your understanding of what they have said

  • Help them get into a mind set where they are ready to feel better

Feeling bad but wanting to feel better

Common emotions: intense to moderate forms of sadness, depression, anxiety, anger, contempt, guilt, jealousy [While these are basically the same as State 2, the difference is in the person’s mindset of being open to help.]

Potentially helpful strategies:

  • Physical comforting (e.g., a hug)
  • Validating their emotions
  • Distraction (e.g., doing a fun activity)
  • Helping them explore and understand their feelings
  • Problem-solving (especially if there is a way to quickly fix much of the problem)
  • Note: Woods and Greenberg also include “optimism and reframing (e.g., seeing it in a less negative light or finding a silver lining)” here, but unless the person makes it very clear that they want to find a silver lining, you may be better off skipping this one. You definitely do not want to veer into brightsiding territory.

Feeling better and seeking solutions

Common emotions: more manageable or minor forms of sadness, depression, anxiety, anger, contempt, guilt or jealousy.

Potentially helpful strategies:

  • Brainstorming solutions

  • Problem solving

  • Advice

  • Volunteering your time to actually help on the solution

  • Providing resources to help solve the problem

These are only the basics — if you’re interesting in learning more, take a look at Woods and Greenberg’s full article (it’s not long, but has some great information and examples of each state). It’s also good to keep in mind that people can also have their own “comfort languages,” where they respond to a certain type of comfort best. Woods explains the concept in this short video.

The bottom line is that even if you have the best of intentions, when you’re offering someone comfort and/or help that they aren’t yet in a place to accept, you may actually be making things worse. If you find yourself in that position, just think of it this way: By not forcing someone to look for the silver lining or move on when they’re not ready, you’re still actually helping them.

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