I had an unfortunate exchange with a teacher over email recently. In retrospect, the misunderstanding itself was actually pretty silly so I’ll save you from the details, but it ended with me apologizing for and my teacher concluding with a brief, “it’s okay, thanks.” All is well, right? I did what I could to fix things and nobody seemed mad at anybody else, but still, I was left feeling a bit… off. Some underlying angst stayed with me for hours the rest of that day. I was stressed for no reason. What was done was done, and I really couldn’t do anything to change it, but still, I kept thinking about it. Was she just being passive-aggressive? Is she going to hold this against me in the future? Did my apology not seem sincere? I decided to try and sleep it off and then basically forgot about it the next day. That is until I started doing my homework for that same class. A couple of minutes in, and bam! That same icky feeling came back to me, making it hard to even focus.
I tried taking a break, and my mom, noticing I looked off, asked me if something was up. I explained it to her, and she agreed that it was pretty silly for me to get bent out of shape about it. As a result, the feedback I got was some pretty stereotypical stuff: Just stop thinking about it, Focus on what you can control, and it’s in the past. On the surface, this seems like decent feedback, and I’m sure it works really well in a certain time and place. But honestly, it didn’t help at all. Don’t get me wrong, I’m really grateful I have a parent who I can go to in times like this. However, I kept thinking about why nothing she said would help. My moment of clarity came when I asked myself what I would’ve liked to hear. Frankly, I was stumped, because I don’t think anything anyone said could’ve fixed how I felt.
After further reflection, though, I realized that as a friend it’s far more important to just show empathy and engage emotionally than it is to offer solutions. I mean saying things like, “I’m so sorry this happened to you” or “that sucks.” Negative emotions can’t really be ignored or replaced with positive ones just by trying to look at things differently. They need to be dealt with, and until they’re acknowledged and validated they don’t get processed. In order for them to move through you and make way for positive emotions, negative emotions need to be given credit as part of being human. Feeling bad, guilty, stressed, sad, anxious, lonely, or any number of other negative emotions is part of living.
Giving advice that doesn’t address emotions is comparable to. If you get a cut, blood is going to come out. We can’t stop the bleeding by “putting it in the past” or “looking on the bright side of things.” We need to wipe the skin clean and put on a bandaid! After thinking more about this the rule I’m going to use is unless someone explicitly asks for advice, just listen. Often times, that’s all someone needs. I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes, by Stephen Covey, “Seek to understand before being understood.”