“Make people happier by acknowledging that they’re not feeling happy.” ~Gretchen Rubin
Gretchen Rubin’s post yesterday on The Happiness Project really helped to clarify for me something that I’ve been struggling with. One of my highest values is around encouragement. I believe that most of us feel better and act better when we are on the receiving end of encouragement than we are when we are being criticized, so I make it a priority to offer encouragement to those I care about as often as I can.
I’ve noticed lately, however, that there are times when people actually seem to feel worse after I’ve offered encouragement—I’ve even found myself reacting badly to encouragement myself—but I have not been able to figure out why. Why would encouragement sometimes have the opposite effect from the one that was intended?
Gretchen’s post, especially the quote highlighted above, finally spotlighted the problem for me. It wasn’t necessarily the encouragement itself that was the problem; it was the failure to acknowledge the other person’s feelings that left them feeling unheard that was the real root of the problem. As I thought back to the times when I have reacted poorly to attempts to encourage me, I realized that this lack of acknowledgment was exactly what I was responding to. Encouragement is still valuable, but only after I know I’ve been heard and had my feelings acknowledged first.
The times I can remember reacting badly were times when I felt like my encourager was ignoring my expressed feelings by jumping too quickly to positivism. While there is no doubt that their intention was to encourage me, what I perceived was an invalidation of what I was experiencing. I often felt a pressure to change my feelings to something that the other person would be more comfortable with. I realize that may not have been their intention at all, but that is what lay behind my negative reaction.
As I considered this then from the point of view of someone who has had attempts at encouragement turn out badly, I can see where the person I was attempting to encourage may well have formed the same impression of my intentions. I had already noticed over the past few weeks that blending the two approaches was seeming to be more helpful to others than pure encouragement when the other person was expressing feelings of discouragement or negativity. By blending, I mean making the attempt to acknowledge that I heard and understood their feelings about the situation while at the same time expressing my belief that things would turn out well in the end.
Now that I’ve read Gretchen’s perspective on this, I think I would probably do even better to just focus on acknowledging that the person I care about is feeling what they are feeling and that this is hard. Rather than trying to help make the other person feel better with my attempts at encouragement, I may just need to be there with whatever hard thing they are feeling in the now. The time for encouragement may come later when the other person is feeling differently about the situation but not in the middle of the hard place.
This is going to take a real adjustment in my thinking and my way of interacting with others. It means that I can’t continue to assume that encouragement as a default position for helping someone I love. I need to take more time to listen to what they aren’t saying as well as what they are saying to know whether it is an appropriate time and place for encouragement or for acknowledging the hard.
It also means being more willing to sit with someone in their discouragement and discomfort without trying to make it better through encouragement. That’s not something that is always easy for me because I hate to see those I love hurting, but I think that learning to do this will be a new and helpful pattern for me as I allow my loved ones to take responsibility for their own stuff even as I continue to learn to take responsibility for mine.
As with any kind of growth, this is going to take some practice … and a lot of self-encouragement.