Updated: Aug 2
***Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and does not provide medical, legal, or health advice and is not a substitute for mental health services
Emotions and feelings are difficult to talk about. We can feel overwhelmed, frustrated, and uncomfortable with them internally, so it makes sense why we might feel scared and nervous to talk about them outwardly with other people in our life.
This article focuses on the perspective of how a loved one – a partner, friend, parent, or another important figure – can help a person who is struggling with expressing their feelings.
1. Be patient
It can be hard to sit back and wait for the person you care about to open up, but it’s important that they do it on their own terms. They can’t be rushed into sharing this sensitive information with you – they have to feel comfortable doing so first and that can take awhile.
Other factors – including their cultural norms around asking for help and the messages they received from their family about mental health and getting support from a therapist or counsellor – may also factor in to how challenging it is for them to share their concerns with someone they care about.
Show up for them consistently in ways that are important and valuable to them. This may allow them to feel that you are reliable and trustworthy. In turn, they may eventually start sharing more with you as learn they can come to you for support.
2. Appreciate their readiness
You can express that you will be there for them whenever they feel comfortable sharing what they are going through. This allows them to see that they can take the lead over when and how much they share, and that can help them feel a sense of control. This may be a time that they feel emotionally out of control so any way of building a sense of mastery can be valuable here.
If it is appropriate to the situation and the person, you can even give them a hug, pat on the hand, or place a gentle hand on their shoulder as non-verbal ways of showing that you care and are there for them when they need you.
You can let them know that you will continue to be someone they can turn to for support – they may find comfort knowing that they can lean on you in times of need in the future and this may enable them to shift from being more closed off to being willing to take the emotional risk of opening up to you.
3. Be attentive
Show you are engaged by doing the following:
lean forward to demonstrate interest
nod occasionally and reinforce their points
empathize with them
summarize and paraphrase to show you understand
ask questions to clarify your understanding if needed
minimize distractions - put away your phone, turn off the tv
intentionally put aside your own worries and stressors for the moment
Your loved one will truly feel that you are focusing on them and they will really appreciate the time you are taking to spend with them.
4. Ask open-ended questions
Questions that are open-ended – not just questions that can be answered with a simple yes or no – will encourage the person to go beyond a basic answer to expressing more of what they are thinking and feeling.
You can ask them questions like “What are you going through right now?”, “How did that affect you?”, “I can see that you’re upset right now – what is making you feel so sad?”
Your tone here is also important – make sure you convey empathy, support, and understanding in your message as any hints of criticism, blame, or judgment will likely lead the person to shy away from sharing anything more with you.
5. Be non-judgmental
As described above, it is crucial to not minimize the person’s experience. You will want to be accepting, supportive, and authentic in your approach. In normalizing their experience and helping them see that many people go through tough times, they may begin to feel hope that things will improve with time and with support from their social network and possibly from a counsellor or therapist as well.
Of course, the exception to being fully accepting and supportive is if the person is sharing concerns about harming themselves or others – in that case, you would need to call your local emergency services and support them in going to their nearest hospital emergency room. However, outside of safety or risk situations, you will want to demonstrate you are a shoulder they can lean on for support so they feel they don’t have to question whether or not they can be open with you.
6. Validate their experience
Just knowing that they are seen, heard, and valued can help someone feel emotionally safe. Show them that you accept them and their feelings by acknowledging the challenges they are going through and how difficult their feelings are.
They will hopefully begin to feel less isolated and realize that what they are experiencing is understandable given the gravity of their situation. When you sit with them and listen to them, your loved one will learn to feel less anxious or hesitant about sharing some of their innermost feelings.
7. Offer support
In addition to providing emotional support and encouragement, you can also try to offer practical help to them in case this helps them to see that you are by their side.
Maybe you can help with an errand or a task around the house, or perhaps you can drop off a meal for them, or you can make consistent plans to spend time with them.
Over time, this person may begin to feel a greater sense of trust, connection, and comfort with you and this may increase the likelihood they will begin to feel more confident sharing their feelings with you without worrying about how they will be perceived.
The depth, complexity, and sensitive nature of emotions are reason enough why talking about them can be hard for someone to do. But sharing how we feel is an important part of improving our mental health and fostering our relationships.
Doing what you can to support a loved one who you know is struggling. Be there for them and take solace in knowing that you are making a difference in their life, coping, and well-being.
Wishing you well on your mental health journey.
Davina Tiwari MSW, RSW, CSFT
Registered Social Worker and Certified Solution Focused Therapist
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