What to say when people tell you their coronavirus fears
Problems and fears around Covid-19 can be complex and having a more positive outlook isn’t always a suitable salve.
The coronavirus won’t be going anywhere for a long time – and neither will our fears about it. Some states have begun to roll back plans to reopen their economies, and as infections increase, the United States is consistently setting daily records for confirmed cases
There’s a lot to be scared of.
But when people share their fears with you, what do you say? It may feel as if you’re offering comfort with a comment meant to lift their spirits – “You’ve got this!” “I know you’ll be fine!” – but to those who are aching, these rah-rah sentiments can sound like you’re bulldozing over their pain, leaving little room for understanding or vulnerability.
Responding to someone’s expression of distress with an unhelpful, cheerful attitude is what the psychotherapist Whitney Goodman calls dismissive, or toxic, positivity.
An empathetic response reassures the other person that you’re seeing the situation from their side and sharing in their suffering. A dismissively positive response subtly shifts the burden of coping back onto the person who is expressing the negative emotion: If you tweaked your attitude, you’d feel better.
Dismissive positivity can take many forms:
“Everything is going to be OK. At least you didn’t lose your job!” “Be grateful you can use this time to explore a new hobby.” “Think happy thoughts!” “At least you have a significant other to stay in place with.” “This won’t last forever, and you’re resourceful. You’ll come out on top!”
At its root, dismissive positivity is a response from someone who feels uncomfortable in the situation aiming to make you feel better and quell your concerns, said Nicolle Osequeda, a psychotherapist. But it often “results in someone feeling unheard, frustrated, unsupported and alone.”
Just because you say, “You’ll be fine!” that doesn’t mean that’s actually going to happen.
“That’s not how the world works,” said Ayanna Abrams, a licensed clinical psychologist. “That’s not how our bodies work. That’s not how our brain works.”
Problems and fears around Covid-19 can be complex and having a more positive outlook isn’t always a suitable salve. So here’s what to say – and what not to say – when people express their fears and worries to you right now.
STEER CLEAR OF FIXING OR REFRAMING NEGATIVE EMOTIONS
Don’t minimise the other person’s fears. Saying things like, “You have nothing to worry about,” does not make anxiety magically disappear. And if someone is sharing fears about the coronavirus, rattling off statistics about recovery rates doesn’t help either. Saying something like, “The vast majority of people who are infected recover,” doesn’t help somebody manage their concerns in the moment, Dr Abrams said.
Avoid problem-solving. “Any statement that begins with ‘You just need to’ or ‘All you need to do is’ is not helpful and dismisses real fear about health, finances and safety,” Osequeda said.
Try not to give unsolicited advice. Unless the other person explicitly asks you for suggestions on managing his or her concerns, you shouldn’t offer your two cents. “Most likely, people are just looking for an ear,” Dr Abrams said. “They’re looking for a heart, somebody who can meet them in the experience and then they can better figure it out on their own.”
Nix the word “should.” Statements with the word “should” sound supportive, but they aren’t. That’s because we are telling people what to do or how to feel, said Sonia Fregoso, a licensed marriage and family therapist. Offering counsel like, “You should just practice self-care” or “You shouldn’t be so negative,” is not helpful. “I believe this advice comes from a place of concern for the other person,” Fregoso said. “But we don’t know how to express that concern and we may fear that we are adding onto what the other person is already going through.”
INSTEAD, WE SHOULD REFLECT, VALIDATE AND BE CURIOUS
A better way to phrase your concern is by using reflection, validation and curiosity, and in that order, Fregoso said. Mirror the emotion you hear in your friend’s voice. Fear, sadness and worry are all common emotions people are feeling right now.
Osequeda suggests saying things like this to reflect the other person’s emotions:
“I can’t imagine how this must feel for you, and I am here to listen.” “I hear you,” while nodding your head and giving a comforting look. “Ugh, that sounds really hard.” “I can hear how scared you are.”
Next, validate the other person’s emotions. Goodman suggests saying things like:
“Yes, it is really hard to sustain your work in the middle of a pandemic.” “It is really hard to be busy, and we’re not all functioning at our full capacity.” “Having to work full throttle amid all of this is really challenging.” “It is terrifying to lose your job. You must feel like you’ve lost your sense of security. “It is hard to not know what’s next.”
Whatever their stresses, “help them feel normal about having feelings during a pandemic,” Fregoso said. “All feelings are valid.”
Many people have had to move or cancel milestone celebrations and trips. It’s OK to be upset about that. Scrapping plans and abandoning dreams is sad. “People invest a lot of time, energy, money, planning into any of these milestones and finding a way to grieve it is important,” Goodman said. Validation looks like agreeing with them that it’s upsetting to go through this loss.
Finally, Fregoso said we should be curious about what the other person needs to help process their fear, worry or sadness. Don’t assume you have all the answers. If someone is worried about, say, getting sick, once you validate that, yes, it is scary to be fearful for one’s health, ask what aspect of contracting the virus he or she is most worried about. Make sure the other person feels heard.
IF YOU’VE SAID THE WRONG THING, YOU CAN STILL REPAIR
Once you realise what dismissive positivity statements sound like, you may realize you’ve botched the job as a confidant. It’s not too late to do some damage control. Dr Abrams suggests reaching out and being transparent about missing the mark. Say something like, “Hey, I noticed when we were talking earlier, it didn’t seem like you were connecting with what I was saying. I realise I slipped into cheerleader mode too quickly. Can we try again? How are you doing now?”
REFLECT ON WHY THIS CONVERSATION IS UNCOMFORTABLE FOR YOU
“The antidote to dismissive positivity is just to really listen to what someone is experiencing,” Dr Abrams said. If that’s hard for you to do, she recommends investigating why that is. Figure out what about the conversation is making you uncomfortable and what you’re trying to accomplish by being overly positive.
If you’re at a loss for what to say next time you feel compelled to slip into cheerleader mode, she suggests asking the person directly what they would find helpful. Recruit them as an ally so you can face the issue together.
By Anna Goldfarb © The New York Times