Step 1: Treat difficult emotions like a puzzle, not a problem

Nick Wignall
Sep 11 · 7 min read
Photo by Dmitry Ulitin on Unsplash

Here’s a question I get asked a lot as a therapist:

How do you sit there and listen to people’s problems all day? Don’t you get depressed?

To be honest, not really.

You might imagine that all the sadness, frustration, anxiety, and shame my clients tell me about would start to rub off on a guy after a while. But, if anything, I feel like I’m a little better at managing both my own emotions and other peoples’ because I get to practice all day long.

The ability to manage other people’s bad moods and difficult emotions well is an ability that can be practiced and strengthened.

What follows are 5 specific skills I’ve learned that help me to effectively and respectfully handle other people’s difficult emotions.

If you can learn to cultivate them, these skills will help you keep your cool in every relationship in your life, especially the most important ones — like spouses, bosses, parents, partners, and children.


1. Treat Strong Emotion as a Puzzle, Not a Problem

When someone close to us is racked with anxiety, overwhelmed by sadness, or just incredibly frustrated, it’s natural to see their emotion as a problem — something to be taken care of and resolved quickly. This is why we so often turn to advice-giving when people we care about are upset.

But as I’m sure you’ve come to learn, giving advice to someone in the throes of a bad mood is typically unhelpful at best and often counterproductive.

Instead of viewing someone’s bad mood as a problem to be fixed, what if you shifted your perspective and saw it as a puzzle instead?

Viewing someone’s emotion as a problem puts us in a moral frame of mind — we think of the emotion as something bad to be gotten rid of quickly.

On the other hand, thinking of it as a puzzle puts us in a mindset of curiosity. And when we’re curious about another person’s emotion, it’s far easier to be validating, understanding, and empathetic, which is what most people experiencing strong, painful emotions really need.

So, pay attention to your own self-talk when someone you care about is very emotional. How are you thinking about their emotion to yourself? Try to catch and hold back on thoughts like:

  • Don’t they see this isn’t doing them any good!
  • If only they knew how much they impacted other people, they’d never be like this.

And instead, substitute more curiosity-driven questions:

  • What could be going on in their mind that would lead to so many painful feelings?
  • What kinds of external situations or circumstances might have set them up for feeling this way?
  • Even though they don’t like feeling sad, is there some kind of benefit they might be getting from it?

When you shift from problem-thinking to puzzle-thinking, your mindset becomes driven by curiosity rather than morality, which is far more helpful in an emotionally-intense situation, both for you and the person across from you.

When someone you care about is in a bad mood, try to understand how and why they’re feeling the way they are rather than how it can be fixed.


2. Try Some Reverse Empathy

Empathy is the act of putting yourself in another person’s shoes and trying to imagine what it must be like to live in their skin — with their thoughts, feelings, experiences, and circumstances.

And while empathy is obviously an important skill to cultivate for all sorts of reasons, there’s a version of it that’s especially helpful for managing other people’s bad moods. I call it reverse empathy.

Reverse empathy: rather than putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, try to remember a time when you wore the same shoe.

In other words, try to recall a time when you struggled in a similar way and with a similar set of difficult emotions and mood.

For example, if they’re really frustrated and angry, think back on a time when you were so frustrated you couldn’t seem to think straight:

  • What happened to get you that angry?
  • What kinds of thoughts and emotions were racing around your mind?
  • What did the people around you do?
  • And maybe most importantly, what do you remember wanting, needing, or wishing for when you felt that way?

Often, reverse empathy can be a more powerful way to appreciate someone else struggle because it’s based on your own experiences rather than hypothetical ones.

And the more you can relate yourself to what they’re going through, the better your odds of being genuinely helpful and supportive to the person next to you, not to mention being less reactive and emotional yourself.


3. Be a Mirror, Not a Mechanic

Without a doubt, the number one mistake I see people (especially couples) make in their communication with each other is that they get stuck in “Fix-it Mode.”

Bob feels bad and starts describing how he feels and why he thinks he feels that way to Shelly. Because she sees that Bob is in pain and struggling, Shelly’s natural reaction is to try and alleviate or eliminate Bob’s suffering.

But here’s the thing:

Most people struggling emotionally don’t want someone to fix their pain, they went to feel understood.

Bake that into your brain, because it’s one of the most counterintuitive but universally true laws of human psychology I can think of. And once you really believe it and start acting accordingly, everybody starts feeling better.

So, how do we get out of a Fix-it mindset and start helping people feel understood? The best way is to practice a technique called Reflective Listening.

Reflective Listening means that when someone tells you something, you simply reflect back to them what they said, either literally or with your own slight spin on it.

For example:

  • Your boss: I can’t believe Teddy embarrassed me like that in front of the whole staff! You: Sounds like you were really embarrassed.
  • Your husband: You never listen, you’re always just giving me advice. You: It seems like you feel as though I tend to just give advice without really listening to what you’re saying.

Now, I know this might sound silly or condescending at first blush, but I promise you it works.

The reason is, it’s not about the content of what they’re saying, it’s about how they feel. Yes, they know and you know that they were really embarrassed at work. The real value of your reflecting back what they just said is that it helps them feel like you are with them, that you’re connected and understanding and on their side.

By mirroring another person’s experience you’re giving them something far more valuable than advice — you’re giving them a genuine connection.


4. Validate Your Own Emotions

One of the hardest things about other people’s bad moods is the emotions they tend to stir up in us.

  • Our spouse is sad and melancholic, and we get frustrated.
  • Our boss is anxious and overbearing, and which makes us feel anxious too.
  • Our parent is angry and irritable, and we respond with annoyance and sarcasm.

The trouble is, once we’re deep into a spiral of our own negative emotion, it’s hard to have enough mental and emotional bandwidth to navigate our own mood and that of someone else. This is why we often react to other people’s bad moods in a way that ultimately isn’t helpful to them, us, or the relationship.

The solution is to get better at noticing and managing our own emotional responses early so that they don’t balloon out of control. And the best way I know of to do that is through a process called validation.

Validation simply means acknowledging our own emotions and reminding ourselves that they’re okay and reasonable.

For example, suppose your spouse or partner has been worked up all evening about some incident at work. They’re frustrated, angry, a little bit anxious, and there’s no sign of it letting up. While you’ve been able to tolerate it for the past couple hours, you feel yourself starting to get annoyed with them.

Rather than a) acting on this annoyance and saying something unhelpful to your spouse, or b) becoming judgmental of yourself for feeling annoyed with them, you could validate your own annoyance.

You could pause for a few seconds, acknowledge that you’re feeling annoyed and frustrated with your spouse, remind yourself that it’s okay and natural to feel that way, and then ask yourself what the most helpful way to move forward might be.


5. Clarify Your Responsibility

A common pitfall I see people make when trying to deal effectively with other people’s bad moods is to overextend their responsibility to that person to include how they feel.

Let me unpack that a bit:

  • We can only be responsible for things that we can control.
  • Emotions, by their very nature, are not directly under our control.
  • Because we can’t control emotions directly, we’re not responsible for them — either our own or those of other people.
  • However, we are responsible for our actions — for how we choose to behave and think.
  • When we assume responsibility for things beyond our control, we set ourselves up for unnecessary frustration, disappointment, and resentment.
  • On the other hand, when we are clear about what we actually have control over — and therefore responsibility for — we’re able to deploy our efforts and resources as effectively as possible.

In short, because you can’t directly control how someone feels, you’re not responsible for it.

So much unnecessary struggle, conflict, and wasted energy comes from a fundamental misunderstanding about what’s really under our control.

On the other hand, it’s amazing how much genuinely helpful energy gets freed up when you remove the burden of excess responsibility from yourself.

When you stop expecting to be able to make someone feel better, you can start taking real steps to connect with them in a heartfelt way and become genuinely supportive.


All You Need to Know

Bad moods and painful emotions are hard to handle — both in ourselves and also in the people we work and live with. While it’s not possible to “fix” another person’s emotional struggles, there are a handful of practical skills you can learn to help you be more genuinely supportive and helpful in the face of other people’s bad moods.

And even if you fail completely to help the other person — or have no interest in doing so — skills like self-validation and reflective listening will help you stay calm and effective instead of reactive and impulsive in the face of other people’s bad moods.

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Nick Wignall

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Clinical Psychologist and writer interested in practical psychology for meaningful personal growth. https://nickwignall.com

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