How to Give and Receive Comfort
While some people are intuitively gifted at saying and doing exactly the right thing at the right moment, the rest of us can learn how. "Comfort boils down to empathy and acknowledgment," says New York City-based psychotherapist Jane Greer, PhD, author of Gridlock: Finding the Courage to Move on in Love, Work, and Life. Acknowledgment, in fact, is so powerful that it doesn't require the gloss of eloquence. "When someone affirms what you are feeling and conveys an understanding of your distress, their sensitivity helps you feel safe and understood," says Dr. Greer. When you offer to bring a sick friend a cup of hot soup, stop by to change the bedsheets, or send a bouquet of flowers with a warm note, you put acknowledgment into action.
Comfort that doesn't include that crucial element of acknowledgment seems emotionally tone-deaf. "It's a good thing that she didn't suffer longer," someone said when my mother died at 73 of Parkinson's disease. That might have been the appropriate response to a survivor relieved to see a loved one's suffering end, but it didn't feel comforting to me. At that moment, I felt it was horrible that she died at all. We can be equally off-key when we hear a person's distress as an invitation to commiserate with our own tales of woe. Who isn't occasionally guilty of this? In retrospect, I could have kicked myself when I replayed in my head a conversation with a friend who called to update me about her mother's illness and I wound up telling her, at great length, about my own mother's hospitalization six years earlier. A brief mention is fine, but only if you stay focused on your friend's problem. How can we so not get it?
The problem is, how much compassion we have for others is sometimes driven by the degree of compassion we have for ourselves -- and, let's face it, most of us are pretty tough on ourselves. "If you're stoic and you have a stiff upper lip, it could be hard to muster up the empathy and compassion for someone else's plight," says Dr. Greer. That was the case with a woman I know who'd been having problems with her boss. When she told her boyfriend that she feared being fired, he said, "What's the big deal? You'll call the headhunters and find another job." He didn't stop to acknowledge her wounded self-esteem, her fear of change, or her financial concerns -- that is, all the fallout that comes from your job's being imperiled.
There does tend to be a gender divide when it comes to giving -- as well as receiving -- comfort. According to Marianne Legato, MD, founder of the Partnership for Gender-Specific Medicine at Columbia University, in New York City, men will often hunker down in solitude rather than reveal a need for comfort; they're also less skilled at soothing others: "A man will focus on solving the problem. He'll give you directions to accomplishing whatever goal he thinks you should be achieving," she says.
On the other hand, women tend to be much better at offering a sympathetic ear and a shoulder to cry on. Women are not necessarily good, however, at allowing themselves to be comforted. Many of us have become so hyperefficient at juggling the demands of work and family that we've lost the art of being tended to. And we feel ashamed to even need tending. "Accepting comfort is like accepting a gift, but that can stir up feelings of helplessness and vulnerability in some of us," says Dr. Greer. "We think that by saying 'I don't need it' we can make ourselves feel stronger."