I would like to tell you a story based on a dream I had. It’s a little odd, but if you’re willing to follow the metaphor with me, you may find an insight or two.
I am playing on the beach with my sister Stella. We built sand castles and now we are playing ball. All of a sudden, a strong gust of wind knocks over her sand castle.
Naturally, I am surprised that the wind could do that. Sand castles can usually handle the wind. But I saw what I saw, and Stella’s castle matters to her, so I get down and I tell her I will help fix her castle.
So we build. We shape. I ask her what is wrong with the castle and she tells me what parts are broken. It’s tricky sometimes because sand is sometimes too wet or too dry and it slips through my fingers. But I keep at it, and I let her see how much I want to make it better, and eventually it starts to look a good castle again.
And then someone new comes over. “I know what will make your sadness all go away,” she says. She picks up the ball we were using to play.
I open my mouth to try to warn her, but she is already kicking it and I am not known for my ability to move fast. And the ball knocks over the castle.
In this moment I am not at my happiest.
This story is not about sand. (If that was all it was, I wouldn’t waste your time with it.)
Sometimes castles fall over when you don’t expect it. I would be surprised if a sand castle got knocked over by the wind. It wouldn’t make much sense to me that something so small could break it down.
But if I saw it happen, I would know it probably wasn’t just the wind. Maybe the castle was already struggling to hold it together. Maybe there were structural or environmental problems. Maybe the castle collapsed for a number of reasons, and the wind was just the only thing I could see.
I don’t argue with the wind. I don’t debate whether the castle has a right to fall. All that matters to me is that now the castle fell down and my sister needs her castle back. And I’m going to try to help her put it back together.
In case you didn’t figure it out already, this is a story about feelings. (You probably figured it out. It is in the title, after all.)
Sometimes people get sad. Sometimes people break down a bit. Maybe it looks like it was over something little, but big feelings don’t come from little problems, so I assume they have a good reason for being upset even if I don’t fully understand why.
You don’t fix a sand castle by throwing a brightly-colored ball at it, you fix it by addressing the broken castle. And you don’t help a sad person by throwing happiness at them, you help them by helping them through the sadness.
My sister got sad the other day. She and I accidentally discovered her hypermobility. She didn’t like it so much. She said she was mad at God for not telling her that she had it.
I was not sad when I discovered my own hypermobility and I certainly didn’t get mad at God. But Stella did, and that’s what mattered. Here she was, getting by under a long home quarantine of an uncertain duration on a day where we weren’t following our normal schedule, and now she had an unwelcome surprise.
So we talked about God and DNA and religious beliefs and the fact that plenty of people get mad at God and it’s okay to feel that way. My cousin (quarantined with us) helped too, saying that his Satanic metal shirt was about being mad at God, and a guy named Satan was also mad at God, and they could be mad together. Interesting method of helping, but it worked.
And then when Stella finally felt mostly better and she told Mom what happened, Mom told her “it’s nothing” and it wasn’t a big deal.
Down went the sand castle. Out came the tears.
Time to rebuild again.
How to fix a sand castle
The trick about emotions is that people often need to feel heard in order to help them process.
When I want to help Stella feel better, I validate her feelings. I let her know it’s normal and OK to be upset (even if that particular time I was secretly surprised by her reaction).
We talk it through. I let her say it all and get it all out. Because I find that tough feelings usually start to fade and become more manageable once they’ve been shared.
Once she has processed, she is ready to talk about something else or to focus on solutions. If she wants to fix it, I offer a few ideas and see if she likes them. If she changes the subject, I let it happen and talk about the new thing.
That is how humans seem to work:
- Talk about the problem and process emotions
- Solve or get over the problem
The steps happen in order. You have to make time for step 1 if you want step 2 to happen.
And if you are trying to accomplish step 1 for someone, you must keep in mind that humans need to feel understood. So:
- Acknowledging the emotion and its power will help it get better.
- Trying to minimize the emotion will make it get worse.
Thus, “don’t be sad” will make someone sadder and “it’s okay to be sad” will make someone less sad.
When Mom told Stella that she was sad about “nothing,” it was like throwing a smiley-face ball at a fragile sand castle. It did not make Stella smile. It made her feel like Mom didn’t understand or care about her feelings.
I may have told Mom somewhat bluntly that it was a bad tactic. In all fairness, I don’t think my castle was doing great at the moment either. I had, after all, put a LOT of effort into getting Stella to feel okay again.
What we can learn
When we focus on acknowledging and fixing the castle instead of throwing happiness at it, we can recognize how to help people.
We can tell them things like:
- “Of course you’re upset. You’re in an incredibly difficult situation.”
- “That sounds incredibly frustrating.”
- “Wow, yikes, really? How awkward! What happened next?”
- “Of course you were nervous watching that happen.”
- “Cry if you need to. I’m here. I can see how hard this has been on you.”
And we can repair their castle piece by piece until they’re feeling better and they’re ready to look for solutions to their problems.
Validate first, problem-solve second.
This simple rule transformed me from an awkward autistic girl who never knew how to comfort her friends into an autistic girl who “always knows just what to say” (according to one sad friend). And all because I memorized a few conversation techniques.
So here’s your glimpse into the workings of the average human psyche. I’ve found this technique useful for calming down and cheering up family members, friends, and total strangers.
Next time you see a broken sand castle, now you may have a better idea of how to fix it.
If you’d like, tell me about a time when you helped someone feel better, or when someone helped you.