Q: I have a friend who is going through a tough time. I want to be able to help, but I’m not sure what to do or what to say. How can I provide positive support and encouragement when everything else seems so negative?
—Empathic Supporter


Dear Empathic:

Your friend is fortunate to have people like you who care enough to express concern and to look for ways to help. All of us from time to time experience challenges and disappointments, some of them minor, others of which may be truly devastating. It can be a great comfort to be surrounded by people willing to listen and express support.

Good friends who recognize sadness, despair, or anxiety in loved ones often look first for ways to lift their spirits and make them feel better. Although that may be a kind intention, many of the problems we all face are complicated, persistent, and in some cases inescapable. Focusing only on eliminating the negative feelings and replacing them with positive ones (“Turn that frown upside down!”) is often not what friends and loved ones need.

Friends who initiate and who maintain social relationships are often the most helpful.

Instead, it’s often best to first acknowledge the negative feelings (what’s called validation) and then consider ways to move forward. It is important for each of us to feel like our emotional reactions are viewed by others as understandable. If you start by saying “Cheer up!” or “Things couldn’t be that bad,” you run the risk that your friend will tune out everything else you have to say, because you haven’t acknowledged that they are dealing with something that for them is significant.

But after doing some careful listening, it’s time to shift your focus to helping your friend find ways to move things in a positive direction. And to do that effectively, it’s important to understand some basics about negative emotions.

Negative emotions generally come in two flavors, one of which involves failure to achieve a positive outcome (“I didn’t get what I wanted.”), in which case individuals experience dejection and sadness, and the other involves experiencing a negative outcome (“Something bad happened to me.”), which often leads to feelings of fear, stress, and anxiety.

Listening to the way your friend talks about his or her emotions will give you a sense of what kind of bad time it is. Is your friend dealing with the absence of a positive outcome or the presence of a negative one? That is important to know, because it affects how you will approach helping to create a more positive outlook.

One possibility for shifting focus in a positive direction is to think about plans for the future. Is there an alternative for achieving a positive outcome that was missed? Is there some way you can help your friend deal with potential negative consequences to make sure that the worst-case scenario doesn’t come to pass?

Negative situations seem especially bad when it seems as though there is nothing that can be done to make things better. Just the act of developing a plan of small, actionable steps can focus attention on possible productive courses of action. All of us prefer situations in which we have some sense of agency—a sense that we can influence what happens to us in the future. Creating plans is a great way of establishing a sense of agency.

Another way to help people feel better is to find ways to reframe (redefine) the situation. Human beings have a remarkable capacity to see things in many different ways. Sometimes, changing the description of a problem can make it seem more manageable. Perhaps the failure to achieve a positive outcome opens up new opportunities to do something else. Perhaps there are underlying benefits to a potential negative that are hard to see at first.

Finally, remember that communicating, staying connected, being available are all important parts of helping. A common response to experiencing life challenges is to withdraw from one’s social network. Friends who initiate and who maintain social relationships are often the most helpful. We humans are a social species, and our sense of well-being is enhanced by having dependable connections with others. You need not feel like you have to come up with solutions; just being there for someone else when life if difficult is in itself beneficial.
—Dr. Art Markman and Dr. Bob Duke

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This advice column is part of the Texas Optimism Project, a sponsored partnership between Texas Monthly and Frost Bank’s Opt for Optimism initiative.

Optimism is the self-fulfilling spark that turns challenges into opportunities and can even be a catalyst for better physical, emotional and financial health. With over 150 years of practical experience helping people succeed, Frost Bank is leaning into optimism like never before. Check out other inspiring stories from Frost Bank here.