Often times we seek out our friends, family, or therapists asking for advice regarding what they think we should do. Similarly, I am sure you have had friends come to you with problems that leave you feeling at a loss as to how to best help them, so you start offering advice and suggestions until something sticks. While it can be nice to hear someone else’s perspective, advice it is just that- someone else’s perspective. Part of why receiving advice may feel unfulfilling is because you were not actually seeking advice at all. It may be that what you are actually looking for in those moments of reaching out is emotional support. You may be wondering, “What is the difference between advice and emotional support? They seem pretty similar.” Although the two can be similar, there are some key differences between them, and they serve very different roles.
Advice is the act of providing someone a suggestion or recommendation on how they should proceed on a future action. By definition, when someone else gives you advice, they are using their own subjective experiences from their life to take your situation and make a decision on how they feel the best way is for you to proceed. Essentially, by asking for advice you are relying on someone else to make a decision for you on how they would proceed if they were in your shoes. Advice is certainly helpful, especially if you are completely unsure of what your options are or already have an idea of what you want to do and just want someone to validate that decision for you. This is great for lighter decision-making issues. However, when you are facing a more complicated challenge, seeking advice from others can sometimes be a “quick fix” which causes both parties to miss the underlying issue altogether. If you are experiencing a more complex challenge that warrants advice, you probably want to know that someone else can understand what you are going through.
In contrast, emotional support involves the sensitive understanding of someone else’s emotional experience. It is the action of actively listening, understanding, and validating how someone else is feeling. It might sound like a basic concept, but it is amazing how often people miss key opportunities to provide emotional support for others. It is difficult to sit with and tolerate your own negative emotions, let alone someone else’s. Imagine if a dear friend opened up about a bad breakup, how depressed they have been feeling, their anxiety that has gotten worse, or how stressed they have been feeling about work. How would it make you feel to hear your friend divulge their struggles to you? It is so hard to see the people we love experiencing pain and negative emotions. This is why so many people are compelled to try to make that experience stop as quickly as possible. You might feel a strong pull to offer advice on how to make that negative emotion stop right away. By giving advice, although we mean well, the underlying message you are giving is, “I cannot tolerate you feeling this way, so let’s figure out a way to make this stop as quickly as possible.” I am not saying that there isn’t a time and place for advice. There definitely is. But that should not be the first line of defense. Most of the time, if someone is reaching out to you, they want to know that someone else can understand what they are going through. Once someone feels that someone else really understands what they are experiencing, advice may not even be necessary.
It takes practice being able to tolerate negative emotions, but with time, you might find that being able to provide emotional support rather than advice helps to promote emotional connectivity and brings you closer to others. There is no right or wrong way to provide emotional support for someone. However, there are some key components that are important and facilitate emotional support.
1) Be present. While it is easy for minds to wander or to feel uncomfortable seeing someone else in pain, know that it is probably equally challenging for them to be vulnerable and open up to you. Be fully attentive and engaged with the other person, and let them know they have your full attention.
2) Actively listen. Focus on what they are saying and allow them to speak. Often this is where people become drawn to offer advice or talk about their own experiences to help the other person ‘feel better’. However, doing this can actually make them feel like they are not being heard. Really listen to what they are saying, including the underlying feelings they are expressing.
3) Validate their feelings. Summarize or reflect back what you have heard them saying. Let them know that you heard the emotion underlying what they are telling you, and allow yourself to be authentic in sharing it back with them. If they are not sure how they feel themselves, you can always share with them how you perceive that they might be feeling. If you were wrong, they will tell you. And it may help them to better figure out how they are actually feeling.
4) Don’t assume. As I stated above, this is the point where you may feel compelled to offer advice. Instead, ask them how you can best support them through whatever they are dealing with. Every person deals with things differently, and what may be helpful for you may not be what that person needs. They know best what they need, so the best way to find out is to ask them. If they don’t know or do not seem to know what they want or need, you can offer some suggestions and see what they think might help best.
5) Be authentic and genuine. This should be a given, but don’t try to be anything other than who you are. If talking about sad things with them makes you feel sad, be sad! Sharing your authentic feelings and reactions with someone you care about models for them that it is okay for them to be vulnerable and sharing their feelings with you. It also reminds them that we are all human and we all have emotions.
By learning to provide emotional support for others, I hope you will find that your relationships grow closer and more fulfilling. However, sometimes the issues we face require a little more help. This is where therapy comes into play. Therapists are specialists with a deeper understanding of human nature, and are trained to provide the emotional support, insight, and navigation of stressors required to help you overcome your challenges and become the best version of yourself. I often meet with clients who look to me as the ‘expert’ for advice. And typically those who come into therapy seeking advice are the people who are in the most pain or are the most anxious about having to rely on themselves for direction. However, as a psychologist, I firmly believe that you are the expert on you. Advice is not therapy. My aim is to provide my clients with emotional support and space to process so that they can get to a place where advice is no longer necessary. Trust that you are very capable of finding the answers on your own.