By Mary Hoofnagle
A couple years ago I found out my rent was increasing about 30%. As a graduate student with bills mounting, this sent me into an immediate state of panic. Every worst-case scenario imaginable flew through my mind. In a matter of moments I convinced myself I had to drop out of school and live on the street since I couldn’t afford anywhere in Austin. Yes—I was catastrophizing and making my problem bigger than it was. Sure—there were plenty of options and plans for how I could solve this problem. But the initial impact of any problem can elicit an extreme emotional response from anyone.
So what did I do? I called my mother. I poured out all of my worries expecting to feel better afterward and receive the answer I needed. My mother started explaining all the different solutions there were, the steps I needed to take, the things in my life I should adjust and change. I felt instantly better and solved all my problems. It was perfect!
Um…yeah. Not at all.
The truth is, hearing all of that in my already fearful and frustrated state sent me into an emotional tail-spin and my panic increased. The pressure of that moment was already powerful enough, but thinking about all the things I should do was too much to handle. I didn’t need answers. I needed someone to be there with me in my fear and remind me that I’m not alone and confirm that my problem did, indeed, suck. I needed someone to reflect my feelings.
We have all sought out solace and understanding from another person at one time or another. I mean—that’s how happy hour started, isn’t it? Think about times in your life when you sought out counsel from friends or family. What it is you were really looking for from your loved ones? When you were frustrated, pissed off, heartbroken, or grieving what were you looking for most? An answer? A magic bullet to make it all disappear? A solution? A carefully outlined plan of action?
OK. Maybe you thought that’s what you wanted when you started talking, but I’d bet cash money that the moment someone started offering you those things you became frustrated and felt completely alone. There is special magic in reflecting feeling. When someone reflects a negative emotion it actually decreases that emotion. If you want to see how magical it can be, the next time a child you know is in mid-tantrum, get down on his or her level, look him or her in the eye, and quietly say in a tone of voice that communicates the anger they are feeling, “You are really mad right now because…” Nine times out of ten the child is instantly calmer. For the record, it works the other way, too. When we are excited and someone doesn’t reflect that excitement or happiness, it brings us down. But when they do, our happiness increases.
Last month this video, It’s Not About The Nail went viral on the web. You may have seen it, but I want you to think of it in a much broader context. This is not just a moment from a stereotypical spousal interaction. This is true for everyone: male, female, spouse, friend, sibling or coworker. When we are struggling with something, we need our feelings and struggles to be understood and reflected back to us first. This act makes us feel validated in our pain or fear. It also makes us confident that we are not going through things alone because someone else understands. Validation provides a solid foundation on which we can start building solutions. Without it, we feel like we are building on quicksand. It can be frustrating when you see a simple solution to refrain from telling someone, “If you would just take that nail out of your forehead, you won’t ruin your sweaters anymore!” However, if you reflect his or her experience instead and say, “It must be so frustrating to ruin a sweater every morning!” your loved ones will feel better understood and your relationships will grow stronger. If you want to learn more, check out our dating and relationships counseling or make a counseling appointment.