"Are you okay?"
We ask this question believing that we are expressing concern and empathy for the distress that we believe we perceive in someone or expect someone to be experiencing.
But think about it, how do you feel when someone asks you, "Are you okay?" How do you respond. Most likely, you deny your pain and anguish and say, "I'm fine." Has anyone you've asked this question ever said, "No, I'm not okay."? Probably not, or of they did, they probably replied quite angrily.
We all ask this question; it's part of our vocabulary for dealing with challenging or traumatic situations. But this question doesn't work because it doesn't establish connection or help people express their anguish.
We need a better approach, one that actually opens a door to communication and connection with another or even with oneself. Try saying to yourself, "Wow, you look upset; what's wrong?" or "You've got to be feeling horrible," or "That's got to hurt." Can you feel how those questions help you find and clarify the feeling that's overwhelming you?
The next thing that people often do is share some of their own experience in an attempt to establish connection. When someone is upset, sharing your own experience is no more effective than asking, "Are you okay?" There may be a time for letting someone know that you've been through a similar challenge, but the next thing you can do to establish empathy is to ask something like, "Where does it hurt?" or "What does the pain feel like?"
Feelings are felt somewhere. Locating where a pain, fear or anger resides helps a person to become an observer of their painful experience. Pain, whether physical, emotional or spiritual, becomes less traumatic when one becomes an observer. It does that by creating some space between you and your painful, fearful or other experience.
Feelings also have qualities. Every experience is unique, therefore, every feeling is unique. Asking what your pain or someone else's pain feels like helps a person process their experience.
Okay, you've located and characterized your pain or helped someone else locate and characterize their painful part, now what do you do? Well, you can offer to listen or just let them know that you are staying with them even if they aren't ready to talk. This applies to you're relating to your own experience as well. Just observing creates space for the energy of the experience to shift, to become integrated. Staying present with someone or yourself establishes empathy, that special sense of being truly in tune with someone's experience.
It's okay to offer to touch or hold someone, even yourself, but make certain that they're ready to accept physical contact. You're there to meet someone's needs, not impose your own needs upon them, even if it's yourself you're supporting.
If your painful part shares something with you, or if the person you are supporting shares something with you, the best thing that you can do is simply to reflect that back to yourself or to them. "Reflect" means say back what you've just heard or seen. Simply use the words or images you've observed. Reflecting deepens the support you offer by strengthening the connection and the witnessing quality.
Sometimes, when a person is traumatized, they will cry and/or their body will shake. These responses are okay. These are natural release processes that the body uses to throw off stress, so resist the temptation to calm the person and don't try to stop them from crying or shaking. Just let it happen and tell the person that it's natural and beneficial. The crying and shaking will stop when they are no longer needed, which is when the intensity of the experience diminishes.
This description wouldn't be complete without an admonition to be patient. Trying to hurry places a demand upon the part that's hurting, frightened or angry. The response to any demand is withdrawal, the opposite of connection. Therefore, make no demands for change from how things are at the moment. Normalization occurs when real freedom to experience whatever shows up is offered.
When all is well, celebrate. Celebrate having come through a challenging experience. Celebrate having reached a place of light at the end of a dark tunnel. Celebrate the support that you've received. Celebrate the connection that has been created or enhanced.
Okay, now you know what to do when you or someone else is not "okay."
1) Acknowledge the feeling.
2) Locate the feeling.
3) Observe the qualities of the feeling.
4) Sit with the feeling. You may offer to touch or hold someone, yourself or the feeling, but first get consent.
5) Reflect back what the feeling says or shows you.
6) Allow crying, shaking or other release process to proceed without trying to diminish them.
7) Be patient; this process may continue for quite some time.
8) Celebrate reaching the light at the end of the tunnel.