How To Deal With Someone Who is Upset

Many men (and women for that matter) in our society don't deal with their emotions well. As a result, most of us are walking around carrying an ever-increasing accumulation of emotional baggage that can get triggered even in seemingly innocuous situations.

People who are upset need empathy, not judgement.

For an example where this happened to me, check out my recent story on Why I Got Upset In Guitar Class. I'll wait here while you do that...

... OK!

Dealing with people who are upset can be very challenging. Part of what makes this challenging is that other people's emotional upset is likely to trigger our own unresolved emotional baggage. This is why many people try to shut down expressions of unpleasant emotions in other people or resort to "rescuing" behaviors intended to stem the flow of another person's feelings that are making us uncomfortable. Naive rescuers often think they are "helping" because they see the upset person appearing less outwardly distressed; but the upset person is simply internalizing their emotional pain which has disastrous consequences for everyone in the long run.

It's difficult to stay centered when we are emotionally triggered, so the first step in dealing with someone who is upset is to have already healed as much of your own past pain as you can. This is why training programs for therapists typically involve a lot of therapy for the therapist themselves before unleashing them on an unsuspecting client.

I'm pretty comfortable dealing with upset people in therapy, but the real world is less predictable. It's also much more challenging when I'm the one upset!

The second thing to be aware of is that the upset person may have more than one thing going on. In my case in the guitar class, on top of being upset I was feeling ashamed about being upset. As a result I wasn't in the mood for lots of empathy that could lead me to feel my inner pain even more intensely... in front of 15 other people.

Someone experiencing shame needs to feel safe before they can deal with their other feelings. If my teacher had said "I can see that you're upset Graham; let's talk about it later" and then not given me any further undue attention in class, that would have worked better for me than trying to deal with my upset in front of the group.

Once an upset person is feeling safe, what they need is empathy. They don't need rationalizations, justifications or humiliation. Tools like problem-solving and goal-setting are also inappropriate while someone is still in the throes of emotional distress.

Someone who is upset needs the healing power of empathy to process and release how they are feeling. Again, if you think you've triggered the upset and have unprocessed guilt of your own, this may be triggering for you too. Unacknowledged guilt is often the reason why people launch into rationalizations or arguments which are completely unhelpful to the person who is upset, and just generate more conflict, upset and ill-will.

Denying a person empathy when they are upset leaves them feeling invalidated, unloved and unimportant. This is likely to cause even more upset, add to their feelings of shame, encourage them to suppress or internalize their feelings and makes the situation even more difficult to deal with for everyone.

Giving someone empathy is really very simple. In fact, I suspect it would come naturally if we hadn't been socialized out of it. Just identify what the person in distress is feeling, and tell them what you notice. If you're not certain, take your best guess; they'll correct you if you miss the mark.

For example:

"You're upset"

Or

"You're angry"

Or

"You're anxious"

Or

"You're feeling despondent"

Note that you must identify a feeling, not a thought, in order to connect with and ultimately calm the emotional center of the distressed person's brain. Saying "You think I'm an asshole" isn't offering empathy; "You're angry with me" is.

Once the feelings have been fully expressed, then can be a good time to offer an apology if one is appropriate, or ask problem-solving questions like:

"What do you need right now?"

Or

"What do you want to do?"

The problem for many of us is that we skip or foreshorten the giving of empathy because we're uncomfortable with the person's upset and want to make our discomfort go away as quickly as possible; especially if we think we've contributed to it in some way.

It takes patience, self-awareness and a sense of safety to allow an upset person to fully express unpleasant feelings so they can truly move on from them without resorting to emotional suppression, avoidance or denial.

About Graham Stoney

I struggled for years with low self-esteem, anxiety and a lack of self-confidence before finding a solution that really worked. I created The Confident Man Program to help other men live the life of their dreams. I also offer 1-on-1 coaching via Skype so if you related to this article contact me about coaching.

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