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Emotional Support: Seven Skills

Often I’m working with a man whose partner complains that he is not “emotionally supportive.” This complaint has very little meaning to him, and his critic is commonly unable to define it, much less demonstrate it.

This is essentially what I present to these men and women, and in this sequence:

Emotions are physical events, must be observed first in the body:  sensed, identified, and named simply in one of the seven classic emotional words:  angry, sadness, enjoyment, love, surprise, disgust, shame. [1] They are organic physical “events,” not things. Emotions as events must be ‘worked with, explored, tolerated, shaped, expressed, contained, experienced, accepted, metabolized.’  They cannot be ‘let go, gotten-past, dropped’ as can material things.

Thus skill one is to be practicing self-observation episodically during your day, and night. This involves literally turning your attention to your own posture, tone of voice, reactions, thoughts and emotions in an aware non-critical way. Doing this, one suddenly notices ‘an emotion is in me now, driving certain thoughts, reactions.’   (Example: an emotion of fear and the thought ‘that dark spot looks like a mountain lion!’)

Skill two is to assume that you long-ago learned styles of responding to your own emotions and thoughts: ignore and suppress them? deny and pretend a composed state? Ignore your experience and tend to the other’s needs?  blast your feelings out quickly into the universe? This is learning (conditioning, training) that takes place in childhood, the location of our earliest emotions and thoughts and the significant others that respond (or not) to us.

Skill three is to observe the impact and the limitations of that conditioning – back there in childhood, and here now, in a more grown up life. In your adult present, real-time events are demonstrating how you react when your emotions arise, or emotions from some other human arise.

Skill four involves practicing, by trial and error, how to both support and deny yourself the skill of expressing what you feel when you feel it.

The first step of skill four starts by REVERSING the pervasive blaming talk in the street that “you piss me off,” “I feel abused,” “l feel disrespected.” Blaming, personal or political or international, is crippling us.

Language that takes ownership for what I feel simply describes who I am and what I want.  It takes lots of practice to say, ‘This is frustrating for me – could we focus on just one part of this first?’

The second step of skill four is to practice “dis-identifying” from your frustration, being a disinterested witness to your experience. Here you are  “supporting” your right to feel suddenly resentful and yet simultaneously just watch as it rises, stays agitated, passes, subsides, dissipates, as all emotions do. This commitment to spending more seconds observing non-reactively your inner emotional weather is crucial.

The third step of skill four is to practice labeling an emotion of yours, first silently, then to another person. Another version of this is to label your emotion silently.

Skill five is to practice identifying implied emotional states in others. You can see this in faces on television, on the street, in the workplace, in your social life. You can learn to read it vividly in short social media or texting comments, easily training yourself to extrapolate ‘what he was feeling’ as he wrote that, or ‘what she was feeling’ when she responded to that.

Skill six is to describe your observation, and to have it confirmed or corrected by the other person. “You sound sad about that.” Friend: “I’m not sad, I’m angry.” You say this out loud to other people and begin to deal with their responses to someone who can see and name their emotional experiences. It helps to begin this with “insignificant others,” casual acquaintances, vendors, people you have little connection with. Clue: many people will resent your doing of this.

Skill seven is actually offering “emotional support.” If you can see or if your friend can acknowledge that she’s angry today, you can be accepting, curious about that, allow her to feel that way:  just listen. You listen only and with determination. You do not advise her, talk her out of it, tell her it will get better or she shouldn’t feel that way. Emotional support is a quiet conscious accepting presence towards an emotional experience that you or the other reports.

The advanced portion of this training is to learn to tell your demented mother, your drunken friend, your hallucinating sister, your aggressive-deceptive boss or your paranoid neighbor that their experience is indeed “frightening” or such for you. In other words, their behavior, triggered by so many influences or produced by internet propaganda or data distortion, does generate emotion in you also.

That emotion is real, in the present, and a fact of life. It’s as real as a hamburger.

In this way, humans produce and maintain emotionally supportive bonds with one another. We have this unique capacity to enjoy a more-intimate and more-accepting style of communicating about the way we experience life, and death.  Thus we move towards the prior fact of connectedness and commonality that all the Traditions document, and away from the seeming separateness and overt blaming that are fulcrums many use to shift power and resources in their own narcissistic direction.


[1] Goleman, D. (1994). Emotional Intelligence. New York:  Bantam Books, p. 289.

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