As humans, we tend to have common instincts when reacting to people in pain.  Some of us are drawn to those in pain while others tend to avoid uncomfortable emotions, both in ourselves and others.  For most helpers, we land somewhere in the middle.  We are drawn to people in pain but feel uncomfortable with our inability to fix things for them.  We may feel frustrated they aren’t taking our advice or impatient with the slow process of progress.  We feel conflicted in our helping role for a number of reasons, one being the ambivalence between wanting to help and feeling helpless.  Recognizing that we, as believers, have a source greater than us to provide wisdom when we need it is empowering.  However, we still fall into some common human responses.  Oftentimes, these responses arise when our human instinct to rescue overpowers our patience to walk alongside someone as God rescues them.  As a therapist, people often ask me questions like, “How do I help people without unintentionally hurting them in the process?”  This question in and of itself merits a reward for self-awareness.  Those humble enough to admit that there is always more to learn in the helping field are some of the most powerful helpers. At the risk of oversimplifying, I’ll list 3 things we may unintentionally do to help that can actually hurt others- and offer some tips on what we can choose to do instead.  

1.     Advising immediately
 When someone is hurting or confused, we want to fix their problem. Giving them advice feels helpful from our vantage point. We may seek to offer our broad solutions to their specialized problem.  We can run into prescribing “shoulds” with the attempt of helpfulness.  “You should just…” 

Though well-intentioned, shoulds assume an arrogant perspective because we are assuming we know what is best for the other person.  
When we give solutions to others in the form of “shoulds”, we are assuming that the person we are speaking to has values, priorities and strengths that are the exact same as ours.  Even if we operate from very similar cultural, socioeconomic and religious viewpoints, every person has a unique biological wiring and very specific life experiences that lead them in their decision making.         

a. What to do instead
It can be disastrous to assume that just because we look similar on the outside, we experience life the exact same on the inside.  Instead of doling out a list of “shoulds”, we can help others by first asking questions that help them discover THEIR values, priorities, and strengths.  This will create long-lasting, personalized results that outlive any one-sized-fits-all advice.

Pause.  Remember that you are not an expert on someone else’s life.  Even though a therapist’s job is to help individuals in times of difficulty, almost all therapeutic training programs highlight the fact that our clients are ultimately the experts in their own lives—we just help them identify what’s blocking them from living their best lives. 
Self-awareness is key here.  Asking ourselves why we are giving advice can be just as important as the actual content of the advice. We can ask ourselves,  “Am I giving this advice because I truly understand this individual’s unique needs or because I’m uncomfortable with them having an unmet need?”  We all have different relationships with neediness and vulnerability. Some of us feel a strong desire to rush in and fix a problem because we feel discomfort with other people’s pain—and we believe it’s our role to alleviate it.  While this can be true in instances of vulnerability (babies, those with overwhelming mental health struggles), for some people, experiencing a bit of pain can be their greatest teacher.  We don’t have to rush in and take that opportunity for growth away from them with hopes of making ourselves feel useful. 

2.     Bible verse band-aids
When someone is in pain, the Word of God can be a powerful anchor for their soul.  It can also be an invalidating and isolating experience.  How so? 
 “Well the word of God says…”. This is helpful but only AFTER we’ve empathized and listened to the individual.  This can feel confusing but we can simplify it by following Jesus’ example. He didn’t just tell us what we were supposed to do from a position of distance, He entered into our experience FIRST—became one of us—and then he showed us how to live. Bible verse band-aids without first entering into someone’s experience can isolate us from the person in pain instead of connecting us to them. What to do instead: Listen then Ask.  “Seems like this is really overwhelming.  Would it feel helpful to share some scripture with you right now?”  

3.     Shutting down
“Don’t feel so bad…you’re okay”.  Of course, we all want people to be okay but telling them they will be okay doesn’t always make it so.  Some people (especially children) need someone to help them recognize and learn self-efficacy skills. They developmentally crave that external support that acknowledges their strengths and help them grow in their abilities to move through pain into strength.  However, we can do this while acknowledging the pain.  We can validate a current experience while offering hope that things can get better.

An example of this:  “You’re hurt right now, I believe you will be okay eventually.  Let’s work together to figure out what will help you feel better.”

 If we don’t do this and immediately rush to telling others they are okay, we run the risk of unintentionally engaging in something called “gaslighting”.  It’s become a cultural buzzword but essentially gaslighting is defined as speaking or acting in a way that leads a person to question their own reality.  Telling kids they aren’t upset when they actually are teaches them to distrust their own internal experience.  It can lead to disconnected emotional responses (learning not to pay attention to their emotions because they will just be invalidated) or strong reactive emotional responses in an attempt to prove to the outside world that what they feel internally, is, in fact, valid. They may up the ante to prove that their pain is real.

What to do instead:
The first step to any kind of change is acknowledging the current situation, and this is no different with emotions.  Listen. Validate the feeling, then provide choices.  If you’re aren’t sure what an individual needs, you can always ask. If you’re uncomfortable with a direct ask, words such as “I wonder” and “I’m curious” can open the door to meaningful conversations 

This could look something like: “Sounds like you’re really angry that your friend didn’t invite you. I wonder if there’s a way to express your anger, first to someone you trust and then to your friend once you’ve calmed down.” When an individual feels connected to you in their emotional pain, they are much more likely to consider what you have to say. 


Entering into another person’s emotional experience isn’t easy.  Culturally, we are oftentimes taught to numb our emotions with substances, busyness, achievement, or :gasp: even religion.  Jesus invites us to go deeper than that and invite Him into our experiences instead of numbing them.  Stay tuned to this blog as we discuss ways we can enter into another person’s experience while staying true to our own values.