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Feelings Are Real: 3 Phrases to Say When Dealing with Other People's Emotions

So many times, someone you love (a partner, parent, friend, or child) reacts to something in a way that you think is over-the-top. Maybe you think your mate is exaggerating his anger when someone cuts him off while driving, or you think your child is being overly dramatic after fighting with his sibling over a toy, or you think your friend is way too sad after breaking free from a terrible relationship. Whatever the situation, it is extremely common to find yourself feeling the urge to say, "get over it" or "calm down" when someone you love is feeling hurt in some way.

It's important to note that your opinion of their reaction is irrelevant. Sorry for being so blunt, but it is. Everyone experiences life differently and the fact of the matter is that your loved one is feeling something. That's what matters- someone YOU LOVE is feeling something. Regardless of how you think you would have reacted, SOMEONE YOU LOVE  is sad/angry/depressed/offended.

To make things even more complicated, sometimes your loved one has been hurt by you. Many times, your first reaction in this situation is to explain your true intentions were never to hurt your loved one, "I didn't mean to hurt your feelings. You shouldn't be this upset because I never meant for you to be offended." Again, your opinion of the situation is actually irrelevant. Sure, you can tell your loved one that you never intended to hurt them, BUT that should be reserved for later in the conversation... or never. Your job here is not to defend yourself. Remember, your loved one's feelings are real. He/she is feeling them. For a reason. In this situation, your job is to acknowledge that you hurt your loved one, validate his/her feelings, and apologize- even if you never intended to get that reaction. Your intention doesn't matter as much as the result of your actions (or lack of actions).

While there are several research-based tips for providing really good emotional support (see Burleson 2003 for a review), here are 3 easy-to-remember phrases that I believe are essential when dealing with other people's emotions (whether you think they're warranted or not). And yes, these phrases work with everyone- your partner, friends, family, and children!

"I'm always here for you."
This sentence can do wonders for any relationship. When my husband and I replaced our "calm down" and "stop crying" phrases we were using with our young children with this magical phrase, it not only calmed them down (YES!), but we truly believe it has strengthen our bonds with each of them. Adults need this kind of affirmation, too. Knowing that someone is there for you, whenever you need them, is so empowering. When you know that you don't have to go-it-alone, you begin to feel more secure in your relationship and with your feelings.

"You have every right to feel this way."
I can't tell you how many times I say this phrase to people. And when I do, a sense of calm comes over them. A sense that they aren't crazy; that they aren't being unrealistic. The sense of calm that comes with feeling completely validated. Again, it's an empowering feeling.

"I'm glad you're talking to me about this."
If you don't know what to say, say this. People want to feel connected to others. They want to feel valued, loved, and safe. When you tell someone that you're happy they're talking to you about something that is likely difficult for them to talk to you about, you're letting them know that your relationship is a safe place for them to share, be open, and be free from judgement. Again, it's empowering.

If you have a few more minutes, take the time to watch this animation of a speech by Brené Brown that ties a lot of this advice together. It's one of my favorite videos to play for my students. And no matter how many times I watch it, I consistently feel compelled to yell out "PREACH!" several times.

  • Burleson, B. R. (2003). Emotional support skill. In J. O. Greene & B. R. Burleson (Eds.), Handbook of communication and social interaction skills (pp. 551-594). Mahwah, N: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.


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