In order to be supportive we often feel that we should give empathy, encouragement, and reassurance to others. While empathy and encouragement are highly recommended, there are times when reassurance may do the opposite of what we intend. For some people, reassurance becomes a crutch. People feel like they need someone to tell them everything is going to be okay in order to complete a task or face a difficult situation. A little reassurance here and there is harmless, but when it is absolutely necessary for someone to be able to function this is a red flag.
For example, if a family member is not willing to go to a party unless you go with them or remind them everything is going to be okay the whole time you are there, they are likely over-reliant on you as a safety person. Reassurance may get them through the moment, but it ends up maintaining their anxiety in the long run. It becomes difficult for the person to rely on themselves and function on their own. And children especially need to learn to cope on their own because we cannot always be there.
Examples of reassurance statements:
- I promise (or know) nothing bad will happen
- I am here and will protect you
- This will not hurt or will not be scary
Basically, we do not want to make promises we can’t keep or pretend that we can control situations that we cannot. I can never make the promise that nothing bad is going to happen or that everything is going to be okay. Although this might be the highly probable in the situation, I cannot guarantee it. There is a chance that something could go wrong. A really hard concept for many people to grasp is that life does not have guarantees, but we do things and take appropriate risks anyway. And we live with ambiguity and uncertainty all the time. Additionally, we do not want to indicate that there is something wrong with feeling scared and that this feeling means we have to be rescued or retreat.
So how can we be supportive without providing reassurance?
1. Validate Feelings: It is important not to sugar coat situations. The best thing we can do is recognize and validate what is going on in the present moment. This is especially important when we are facing uncomfortable or scary situations. For example, recognizing that the situation is scary, that it might hurt, or that we might feel like we want to flee are all important feelings to express and validate.
2. Use Coping Statements: Rather than using language that takes away from thoughts and feelings in the moment, use language that promotes one’s ability to get through the situation, even when it might be really hard. For example:
- You are strong and you can do this
- You can get through this
- Your feelings (or the situation) are temporary
- You always feel better when you stick with it
- You have to stay in order for your fear to ultimately decrease