Your friend calls you in tears, clearly overcome with emotion. They’ve just gotten terrible news and need you now. Suddenly, you wonder, how can you comfort someone who is crying from so much emotional pain?
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Steps for Helping Someone in Emotional Pain
- What You Should Say (And Not Say) to Someone Experiencing Emotional Pain
Steps for Helping Someone in Emotional Pain
Getting a call like that can be shocking, and you may need a few moments to collect yourself. You may wonder how helpful you’ll be when your friend feels so overwhelmed. It’s understandable to feel uncertain, but your role is simple. Be supportive and show you care. This guide will show you several ways to give that message without feeling like you have to solve their problems. Learn how to offer help and support by reviewing these ideas.
1. Ask your loved one what they need most right now
This is such an obvious question it can easily be overlooked. When helping someone emotionally, you might get caught up in trying to be a problem solver. It may even feel like you’re supposed to swoop in to make things better.
While it’s great to come in with a few ideas, your approach may be missing a few things. Instead of making assumptions, let your loved one tell you what would help the most. Then if they seem uncertain or unclear, feel free to try a few of your ideas. After you spend some time together, they may get a better idea of what helps and what doesn’t.
2. Avoid cheering them up or downplaying the situation
If you’re used to seeing your loved one happy, your first instinct might be to cheer them up. The intent behind this is caring, but you can look insensitive. Your loved one may get the idea that it’s not OK to express their emotions and that cheering up is the goal. When loss hits a person hard, raw emotion is real and normal. And it’s healthy to let it out, whether alone or with others nearby.
When it comes to figuring out what to say to someone going through a hard time, sometimes it can be better to just let them express their pain however big it may be. If you’re uncomfortable, acknowledge it as your issue to cope with.
After all, allowing your loved one to feel their pain will make it easier for them to live with it. It sounds backward, but facing emotional pain is a healthy part of learning to deal with it.
3. Actively listen to show you understand
Active listening is a caring way to support a person struggling with emotions. Overwhelming emotional pain can make a person feel isolated and disconnected. When you reach out and try to understand, your outreach can be a light in a sea of confusion.
Active listening involves summarizing what you hear and saying it back to the other person. You aren’t necessarily trying to repeat everything, but you are making sure you understand the most important information. Comments like, “Yes, it is hard to feel like X, Y, Z” or, “It’s a lot to deal with, especially when you are dealing with X, Y, and Z,” can help you stay on track.
As you sit with your loved one, you’ll also notice your own emotions. This is normal and it’s good to recognize your perspective. Make sure you know the difference between your point of view and theirs. Active listening keeps your focus on their ideas and needs instead of yours.
4. Be there for them when they need someone
Just be there, and show up in person if you can. Don’t underestimate the power of your presence when someone you love is hurting. When you can be next to a person you care about when they feel alone and vulnerable, your physical presence can help them stay grounded.
Your loved one knows you’ll drop what you’re doing and sit with them so they don’t have to feel alone. This action can do so much, even if you aren’t sure what else to do. If you can’t be there in person, find the next best way to be present. This could be a video call, a phone call, or even texting if that’s what you can do. You are joining them in their moment of pain and that can mean a lot to them.
5. Be still and quiet
Staying quiet can be hard. You may feel a strong urge to fill the awkward moments of silence with the sound of your voice. You might feel like you need to start doing something instead of being still. It’s natural to feel unsettled when the biggest thing happening is a lot of strong emotion. But it’s very important to let your loved one’s personal experience take center stage.
This is not about you or your comfort level. Your loved one is going through something difficult and real right before your eyes. Being still and quiet helps you stay out of the way. They can express themselves freely with you there for support.
6. Resist the urge to give advice unless you are asked
When someone needs help, you do all you can for them. In some cases, this might include advice. But if you’re helping a loved one through emotional pain, giving advice may not always be the right move. First, they may not be ready to take action. Second, you might recommend something that doesn’t fit their situation. And third, it can seem like you are less interested in listening and more interested in fixing their problem.
Don’t offer quick-fix band aid solutions like going on a trip or getting a pet. These choices may not serve the person well in the long run and may not even make them feel better. Spending a lot of money or making a large life decision isn’t helpful when someone is dealing with heavy emotions. Keep things simple, and at most, ask if they want any advice or solutions right now.
7. Offer practical hands-on help
“Let me know if you need anything,” is an easy comment to toss out when someone is struggling. It may sound like you mean well, but it can often be a hollow promise. Instead, offer help that’s practical and specific.
Tell your loved one that while they’re dealing with their situation, you’re going to pick up their weekly groceries or help them with yard work. Let them choose which one and get a plan in place.
Doing the work upfront lets your loved one make some important choices, then hand the details over to you. They can feel free to rest, do something that helps them cope, or just have the flexibility to deal with emotions as they come up. By taking care of practical needs, you let them put their energy where they need it most.
8. Suggest referrals to professionals as an option
As mentioned a few times earlier, it’s easy to fall into the trap of solving problems for your loved one. Even if there are solutions, most people just need to cope with their emotions in healthy ways. And sometimes, the guidance and support of a counselor can be a good idea.
Deflate any concerns about stigma regarding counseling. Just starting the conversation about counseling makes it easier for them to consider. Your loved one may not feel the need right away, but they may feel less ashamed or uncertain about reaching out in the future.
At the very least, you’ve positioned yourself as a safe person to talk to about it. If they want to bounce the idea off someone down the road, you may be the first person they contact.
9. Get moving
Get moving and take a walk. Sometimes silence can be awkward and it feels like you should be doing or saying something. Walking can fill that void with a natural, almost automatic activity. And for some people, moving their body helps them talk more easily. Unless the weather is uncomfortable or dangerous, try to take at least part of your walk outside. If you can get close to some nature, even better.
If your walk seems uneventful, know this: physical activity will stimulate an increased oxygen flow and trigger the release of endorphins. Those two things will give you and your loved one a quick emotional boost. The change of scenery and fresh air can do you both some good.
10. Check on them again
Supporting your loved one as they cope with emotional pain is so important. But many times, the first several days are just the beginning of the process. Once the initial shock wears off, you may not feel like you’re needed like you were at first. Go ahead and check on them again. Just because things seem calmer doesn’t mean everything is fine.
Emotions come and go, often creating some upheaval and chaos along the way. Show up and see how things are going, invite them to get coffee, or take a walk. Whether you step in on a good day or learn that they’ve still been struggling, your follow-up shows you care. They know you are there for the good days and the bad ones, too.
What You Should Say (And Not Say) to Someone Experiencing Emotional Pain
When it’s time to reach out to your loved one, your words matter. Here we’ll review some of the most and least helpful things to say when someone you care about is experiencing emotional pain.
What you should say
When you give another person your full attention, you tell them they matter. Some people feel awkward sharing their emotional pain. They may stumble over their words or hesitate to open up. Talking about upsetting emotions can be hard and may even feel like reliving the pain in those moments. If they don’t say much, it doesn’t mean they don’t trust you. Just let them know you’re ready and allow them to take the lead.
“I can see you’re hurting.”
Recognize that you see them in pain. Saying this can be helpful, especially if they seem uncomfortable. It can be hard to describe emotional pain, so your acknowledgment is important. You may spend time with them while they cry. Or they may put on a strong face to deal with certain things for a while. When your loved one needs to let go of everything with a person they trust, they’ll know they can lean on you.
“I’m here for you any time.”
Sometimes a person in emotional pain doesn’t know how others can help. Coping with deep emotion can take time and energy, and it’s not something you just get over. If your loved one seems too upset, take the pressure off having a big conversation. They may feel ashamed or embarrassed about the situation. Assure them that you’ll be around and they can count on you.
What you should avoid saying
“My mom/friend/sister went through the exact same thing.”
Your loved one had a unique experience. Even if it’s similar to another story you’ve heard, you make a big assumption here. Think about the purpose of this comment. You may think you look knowledgeable. But in reality, you put yourself in the center of the story. It does nothing to help the other person and makes you seem tone-deaf.
What to say instead
Use the other story as a springboard for questions. Tell your loved one you’ve heard about that issue before, but you want to know more about their situation. “I heard so-and-so mention XXX once. What was your experience with it?”
“Here’s what you need to do…”
Giving advice can seem like a helpful gesture, but many people rush to share the first thing that pops into their minds. Without knowing more about a person and what they really need, telling them what to do may not help. It can sound like you aren’t interested in their viewpoint. You may sound dismissive, or like you know better.
What to say instead
Tell them you want to help. Say you have a few ideas but aren’t sure what they need. Even if they say something like “Whatever, it doesn’t matter,” you’ve started a conversation, and they’ve heard your offer of support.
“Let me know if there’s anything I can do.”
This is a popular response, but it’s far from helpful. It’s a throwaway comment that makes you feel like you’re doing something. In a time of emotional crisis, you put the entire responsibility for support on the other person. They may not be sure what they need right now. However, that doesn’t mean they want to be left alone and don’t need support.
What to say instead
Tell them you’re available to help and then keep following up several more times. Offer something concrete like help with house chores or cooking a meal.
Giving Support Means Standing Beside Your Loved One
Nobody wants to see a loved one in emotional pain. Knowing how to comfort and support them can help you handle the situation with confidence. Consider the ideas in this guide and turn your compassion into action. Stand beside your loved one today and help them know they aren’t alone.
IF you're looking for more ways to support a friend, read our guides on how to write a letter of encouragement and the best encouraging gifts.
- “Grief: Helping Someone Else After a Loss.” US Department of Veteran Affairs, 1 June 1 2020, ptsd.va.gov
- “Supporting Someone with Emotional Distress.” Dartmouth-Hitchcock, med.dartmouth-hitchcock.org
- Vinci, Kaffey. “Two Legs, One Brain: Positive Effects of Walking on Mental Health.” Trusted Provider Network, 6 May 2020, blog.tpn.health